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“At some point we have to be honest about some of these kids.” The veteran educator spoke in italics, words slanting off her tongue eager to reveal their hidden meaning. “We have to separate the wheat from the chaff and tell some of these kids they’re out.”

And I wondered how many times her colleagues around the room had wished she’d just retire.

Or vaporize.

And as detestable as her sentiments sounded, rare they were not. Spending time with school faculties in conversations on beliefs about students, I hear views like these more often than I’d wish.

I scanned the room, preparing for the standard eye-rolls and side whispers that generally followed comments like these, indicating overwhelming dissent at underwhelming volumes. Because, in a caring profession like teaching, you’re expected to be nice.

And so it often goes, tongues tacked down by clenched teeth — pursed lips a secondary defense — as if they might just escape and say something unseemly.

But not this time.

“Oh come off it.”

The voice came from the back. Everyone turned, exhaling.

“I’m sick of this. Look, to be perfectly honest, this kind of stuff is why I don’t even go to the teachers’ lounge.” The room was so quiet you could hear the eyelids peeling back to get a better look at the mid-career teacher as she continued.

’These kids.’ ‘This administration.’ ‘I won’t.’ ‘They can’t.’ Can we please talk about some solutions here?! And if you don’t think there are any, maybe you should just leave.” And then a chorus chimed in. Educator colleagues tired of the naysaying, the slurring of students, and the demeaning of the profession. It took a moment and the courage of one teacher to disrupt the uncomfortable silence of eight months.

They had never “talked like this,” one teacher later shared.

Professional conversations had been limited to stifled, monthly, hour-long professional development that — even if content-filled — left little time for discussion and less for disagreement.

But here it was, June, and eyes were heavy from rolling with the weight of things left unsaid.

We continued on for 90 minutes, well beyond their session time. And something in that room changed as a result of that one teacher’s words and unwillingness to settle for clenched teeth and the comfort of her classroom.

Voices that had been muffled behind classroom doors all year sounded through the auditorium.

They ended the session, vowing to meet monthly for open forums, to change the timbre of conversation in the teachers’ lounge, and to find regular opportunities to share strategies across classrooms, departments, and grade levels.

All because one teacher had the guts to speak up. And others had the guts to back her up.

Behind thousands of classroom doors in schools across the country there are voices of hope rattling knobs to get out — to echo through locker-lined hallways and fluorescent-lit teachers’ lounges in a resounding belief that schools can do more and be more to even the most struggling students.

May their voices, like that voice in the back of the auditorium from room 312, never be silenced.

Because the real courageous conversations in schools come not from being “nice,” but being real.

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