Sprinters & Marathoners Needed to Transform Education

Pat Kirby is the Executive Director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts. He delivered this speech to graduating second year Teaching Fellows at this year's graduation ceremony. 

As young leaders beginning your careers, you have officially been initiated!

Over the past 2 years, you have lived and muscled through the belly of the education reform beast … you have played a central role in one of the two big issues of our generation – saving our schools and saving our planet.

As you have time to reflect about your experience here at Citizen Schools, I hope you will remember how much you have already navigated through:

  • the learning curve of being a new teacher
  • students who challenged you beyond what you thought was possible
  • a truly imperfect school system
  • schools pushed to the brink of their capacity
  • a first job experience in a still evolving organization trying to accomplish extremely difficult things… and not always getting it right

That’s a hell of a lot to navigate through.  And it shows a level of courage, resilience and grit that true leaders need to learn and model.

Author Steven Brill’s latest book, “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools”, is a great read about the rise of the education reform movement. What I find interesting is that Brill ultimately comes to grips with the fact that to get this right over the next generation, we need both the sprinters and the marathon runners.

The sprinters who build innovative new models and scale them fast; and the marathoners in the mainstream system who are ready to partner with the sprinters more and more to change the system as a whole.

At Citizen Schools, you have been part of the sprint – an intense burst of energy channeled as best we could through a still imperfect, but increasingly effective model.

Some of you will move on from Citizen Schools and continue to sprint – at TFA, Charter Schools or other similar types of educational organizations.

Some of you will follow a different path …

I hope, however, that all of you will stay engaged in the larger marathon.

And I hope if you have learned nothing else, you continue to learn how to pace yourself for that longer run … to “rest while running” as my college soccer coach used to tell us in the 88th minute of a game.

I hope years from now you will be able to tell your grandchildren that YOU were part of the generation that fixed our educational inequities. We’re far from that day, but doesn't it feel good to imagine what that would feel like?  And when they ask you what you personally did way back then, I hope you can answer them proudly:  I did a lot.  More than most.  I was part of the small group of committed leaders that got this country’s educational system back on track. 

At 41 years old, I find I am getting increasingly reflective this time of year. Each year seems to matter more and more to me.  And I’m impatient and want us to get better… and get better faster.  So I find I have to force myself to pay more attention to the big picture to continue to find the stamina to stay engaged in the marathon of leading social change and bringing about a reimagined learning day.

And because of this practice I’m also able to see – perhaps more clearly than you – how important our work is. Not just for the kids we serve, but also as a proof point for the imperfect system within which we work and for the space we create that allows you as emerging leaders to try and fail and pick yourself up again and hopefully go on, with fire in your belly, to continue to push the system to change…long after you leave Citizen Schools.