Sherry King is a member of The Line’s Editorial Advisory Board. King is currently working on a new professional development and educational resource platform, TeacherCraft, and supporting a young charter school in New York City, School in the Square. She has been a high school English teacher, high school assistant principal, principal and K-12 superintendent. She served as vice president for field services of America’s Choice, and vice president of the Pearson System of Courses, a digital curriculum for math and English language arts. She was responsible for leading the K-12 English language arts development including state adoption, field trials for math and English language arts, first implementation in five districts, and the creation of professional development to support teachers implementing the curriculum.
Q: Why did you agree to serve on The Line’s editorial advisory board?
A: Education and life are enhanced by relationships.
I am lucky that I have had a deep professional relationship with John Deasy since we were both high school principals. When he told me about his role as the first editor of The Line, I was delighted to once again be by his side.
I became more excited about The Line when we had our first advisory board meeting. It is really an extraordinary opportunity for a thoughtful and diverse group of educators to come together and think about how we might contribute to the conversation about K-12 education through the lens of civil discourse.
“We’re also seeking to model what civil discourse is: providing points, counterpoints, and topics where people can have real conversation.
Q: What is your hope for superintendents when they read The Line?
A: We want The Line to provide background information and various points of view on the complex issues that all superintendents face. The Line should be their go-to for information and ideas to inform their practice and shape how they interact with their leadership teams, their board and their community.
We’re also seeking to model what civil discourse is: providing points, counterpoints, and topics where people can have real conversation.
Q: What have you learned about civil engagement through your career?
A: First and foremost, that it is really hard. Civil engagement is difficult for a variety of reasons, some having to do with biases everyone brings to the table, some with parents who worry that if we do more for “other” kids, their own child might get less. The perception or reality of limited opportunities along with limited resources works against generosity of spirit.
As a school leader, it takes a lot of determination and courage to keep an agenda of civil engagement both transparent and reassuring. It is important but difficult to ensure that by trying to open the doors for communication, you’re not inadvertently having people retreat into their camps, but are helping them experience the benefits of considering ideas and perspectives that seem to contradict their own.
I’ve learned through my previous experience as a superintendent the importance of civil conversations exactly like those Frontline is now supporting around the country. Through working with a variety of people – stakeholders, the board of education, parents and students who are old enough to engage in these discussions – you can come to a much better understanding of what makes some challenges so difficult. Considering the difference between equal and equitable or the allocation of school district resources against need are examples of such challenges.
Students, as well as adults, have to become familiar and comfortable with this kind of civil discourse. When I was a high school principal, I worked to create democratic practices for students and teachers in the context of school governance. I believe that if students are engaged in this kind of decision making in schools, they are more prepared as young adults to take their place as responsible citizens.
Q: After the Parkland tragedy, student voice became prominent and there were more and more conversations about civic engagement. Do you think there will continue to be momentum around this engagement within school districts, and greater emphasis on civics education?
A: I think maintaining the current momentum and channeling it into meaningful actions is very complicated. My doctoral work was in democratic schools and just communities, so I have been looking at these issues for a while.
Certain school environments diminish civic engagement because there is no opportunity for students to discuss the purpose of school rules. It is important for students to gain a genuine understanding of the balance between individual freedoms and collective norms, which means they have to be enabled to make decisions, evaluate their effect, and alter them when they turn out not to serve the school community. Whether the momentum created by Parkland will suffice to support that kind of complex and challenging process remains to be seen.
There’s a lot of attention today on social and emotional learning, yet not very many schools seem to be engaging kids in discussions of these issues. There’s also a lot of buzz about restorative justice practices, but I see more well-meaning lip service than actual practice.
“We need more structured opportunities for students and teachers to come together and really think about areas of concern that affect both of their lives; similar to what Frontline is attempting with the civil discourse conversations they are hosting.
Q: What is your own approach for engaging with people with whom you might disagree?
A: A psychologist I worked with many years ago in one of my districts said to me, “Just remember that the people who irritate you the most do so because there’s an element of truth in what they say.” That statement echoes in my head all the time. So before I combat anything, I always consider what might be true in what that person is saying.
I try to remember that when parents are angry, it’s just because they’re scared for their children and that they may feel vulnerable. If I can remember that people are almost always coming with good intentions, I can generally get them to let down their guard and engage.
In regard to working with people of differing opinions in a group setting, having a protocol for how people talk, listen and share is really valuable. Establishing time for people to listen instead of readying their response is really important to hearing each other. I also think that setting up an activity where people share their values in a nonjudgmental way is important to honoring different points of view.
Every time we ignore our differences, we diminish the possibility for civil discourse.
Q: What makes you most proud?
A: When I think of initiatives and conversations in which I was able to help a community confront its differences in a very positive way in order to strengthen the whole community, I feel proud.
Equally, I feel grateful when I run into teachers, school leaders, and even a lot of old students who tell me what an impact I had on their lives, of which I was mostly unaware. As educators, we don’t always recognize how significant our interactions with adults and kids are for the long term.
Q: What do you believe is the value of education?
A: Good education offers people the opportunity to maximize their options in life, which allows them to have choices.
This is especially true in a time when the work life of this next generation is going to be so different than that of previous generations. My own career path was a very stable trajectory: I started as an educator and I was always an educator. But that’s not going to be the work life of most of the next generation. Helping students to understand their options and how to be flexible and nimble with regard to both opportunity and transfer of skills is what we must offer through education.
Q: What makes you hopeful about the future of education?
A: My optimism is all about the teachers and the students. Kids come to us filled with hope for their own future and want to learn. And I still see lots of people working in education because they care deeply about helping make a better future for everyone.
Q: What books would you recommend that education leaders like yourself put on their summer reading list?
A: To tell you the truth, I’m reading a whole bunch of murder mysteries this summer. We say to kids, we want you to love reading and just read. I want us to not forget that, so I’m just going to do a lot of pleasure reading myself.