Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), a coalition of 20,000 teachers in six American communities, got its start in a pizza joint in New York City’s East Village. There, a group of young teachers, including Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, who taught second and sixth grades, respectively, at P.S. 86 in the North Bronx, shared their frustration with the public school system. Of all the complaints, the one that stood out the most was that the educators felt like opportunities for growth and transformation weren’t available, but that they couldn’t do anything about it. In 2010, Morris and Stone founded E4E to empower teachers to be changemakers. NationSwell spoke with the pair about the challenges and rewards of working with an entrenched education system at the green-apple-filled E4E headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
Morris: We were coming to this work straight from the classroom, and I think one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever gotten was “People first, people second, people third.” It really is all about the people, the talent, the ideas they bring, the culture they help create.
Stone: Another piece of advice that we got early on was “Decide what your north star is, and keep your eye on it.” Because you’re going to get lots of ideas from lots of people that sound exciting and could pull you in lots of different directions. But stay true to why you launched this organization, why it’s important. That’s something we constantly check each other on.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
Morris: One thing that our teachers are incredibly excited about, all across the country, is around school climate and student discipline reform. Certainly in today’s times, our membership and our team is incredibly driven by a lens of equity, and we see hugely disproportionate rates of suspensions, expulsions and discipline — particularly for boys of color. Thinking about how we transform our schools into the kinds of safe spaces in which all kids can truly learn really is very closely intertwined with how we discipline students. Moving from a more punitive discipline model to one that is more restorative is something that we’re doing a lot of work on supporting teachers, districts and school systems, because we think it is so directly linked to better outcomes and opportunities for all students.
Stone: Another huge shift that’s happened in our landscape that’s opening the space up for a ton of innovation is we have, for the first time in 16 years, a new federal education law: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act. A lot of the systems under NCLB that were federally mandated have been loosened up to allow state and district flexibility. (This is distinct from Common Core; it’s much broader: how we hold districts accountable, how we fund schools, services that are provided for special populations of students — it’s the whole federal education code, essentially.) [Recently], we had a group of teachers in Albany, [N.Y.] meeting with state education officials, union leaders and others to try to think about what opportunities are available for innovation and how do we really make sure teachers are helping to drive those changes. This is going to be happening in every state, so it’s a real opportunity for our members to take ownership over the new structures that govern school and their profession can look like.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Stone: I’m glad that people didn’t tell us too much, because I think naïveté is sort of a blessing in a startup. As we launched this out of our classroom, I don’t think we had any idea about some of the challenges that we would face in building and running an organization. That allowed us to take each challenge as it came, one at a time, which was really necessary in the early days, when we were still working in school part-time, trying to run this organization part-time and figuring out the myriad things that you need to do to launch and run a nonprofit.
What inspires you?
Morris: The education space is incredibly complex. What helps me get up in the morning is that the positions that we take, the work we do and what our members stand for is a true, rational middle in an otherwise polarized space. One of the biggest myths that exists in the education space is that, if you are pro-reform or pro-change in education, then that must mean you are inherently anti-union. What our members are showing is that, in fact, they are pro-union and pro-change at the same time, calling for critical and significant shifts for the way our profession operates and the way we serve our students, while also believing in the power of teachers coming together to collectively create change.
What’s on your nightstand?
Morris: Do you want the honest answer? I am almost finished with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Sometimes you go home, and you just need to clear your head. What could be better than wizards and magic and spells? I’ve never read it before, so I felt like I was missing out on a major cultural phenomenon here.
Stone: I am almost finished with “Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream,” Andy Stern’s new book. He’s a really inspirational labor leader that’s thinking about how do we ensure, as our world and our country continues to change, that the American Dream can still exist. It’s a pretty exciting book that pushes our thinking. Even if — when — we have a high-quality education serving all kids, what are the jobs of the future we’re preparing them for? How do make sure that our school system lines up with that and that our country supports opportunity for everyone?
What’s your favorite book of all-time?
Stone: My favorite book of all time is “The Brothers Karamazov,” and the reason is I read it my senior year in high school. It was probably year when I didn’t want to do much work, and my English teacher, with whom I spent three or four months on it because it was quite the tome, was just phenomenal. It made me want to see myself as an intellectual. That book and that teacher had a significant impact on me. One of the goals of the education system is to inspire learning, and that combination of those two did that for me.
Morris: The literature you read at defining moments in your life can be the books that stick out most vividly to you. One of those for me is a book that both played a role in my understanding and appreciation for spirituality and also for a woman’s journey: “The Red Tent.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of women, too, in our work, because teaching in many ways was one of the first careers open to women, and it is a profession where the majority are women, so I’ve been thinking about the role women have to play in leading that change.
What’s your perfect day?
Stone: Besides lying in bed all day eating a cheeseburger and french fries with a milkshake, which sounds pretty good to me sometimes, my perfect day is when I have the opportunity to see our work in action. That could be at a school with one of our outreach directors helping to facilitate a focus group of teachers, and seeing those teachers experience what it’s like to know that your voice matters and feel heard. Having that be a big piece of my day is really important.
Morris: One thing my mother always said to me was “Do good and do well.” A perfect day for me is when I feel like I’ve done something good, whether that’s a small act of kindness toward somebody else or a big win in our work, and also when I feel like I’ve brought my best self and best work towards that end.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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