Posts Tagged ‘Solomon Burke’

Up To The Mountain–Why You Should Teach

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Over the weekend I listened to Solomon Burke singing Patty Griffin’s magnificent song, “Up To The Mountain”—her tribute to Martin Luther King based on the famous mountain top speech Mr. King gave the night before he was assassinated in Memphis.   This song is so important to me that I’ve asked Jenny to have it played at my funeral, which I’m hoping is many years from now.  Here are they lyrics:

I went up to the mountain because you asked me to

Up over the clouds to where the sky is blue

I could see all around me everywhere

I could see all around me everywhere

Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired

And I’ll be working ‘til the day I expire

Sometimes I lay down no more can I do

But then I go on again because you asked me to

Some days I look down afraid I will fall

Though the sun shines I see nothing at all

And I hear your sweet voice come and then go

Telling me softly you love me so

The peaceful valley just over the mountain

The peaceful valley few come to know

I may never get there ever in this lifetime

Sooner or later it’s there I will go

Sooner or later it’s there I will go

There are many important messages in this song—the power of knowing you have a calling, that you are doing what you are meant to do, that you are acting on the force and focus that come from a perfectly clear personal vision.  But what hit me this weekend as I listened was the difference one person can make when all of those factors are united laser-like in action dedicated to making the world freer, more just, equitable, humane.  This is what George Bernard Shaw has written is the “true joy in life,”

the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy…

The people who strive for mighty purposes shine like lights in the darkness of our day-to-day struggles. These heroes, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, seem like saints who have accomplished so much, people so far above us that we can never approach what they do.

And yet, the fight they fight, for freedom, health, equality, respect, goodness, that is a fight all of us can fight.  And that is a fight, I believe, that is especially there for every teacher to choose.  When a teacher’s kindness and empathy help a student find self-respect, when a teacher’s high expectations compel a student to believe she can be more than she realizes, when a teacher’s commitment to self-improvement helps him better teach students to read, the teacher is engaged in the same struggle that our saintly heroes fought—the fight to make the world a better place.  In a real way, profoundly dedicated teachers are climbing “up to the mountain.”  To teach with integrity is to hold up hope that the world can and will be better.

There is no measuring this hard, good work; there is only the knowledge that we are doing the best we can. And who is to say that a second-grade teacher in New Orleans or an AP English teacher in New York City won’t ultimately have as much impact as Martin Luther King.

It was a teacher, after all, that brought Mr. King into the world and taught him how to read.

Speak Truth to Power

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

There are people still in darkness

And they just can’t see the light

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it’s right


None of us are free, one of us are chained.

None of us are free.

Solomon Burke

“Speak truth to power” is my good friend Jean Clark’s favorite phrase.  When we do the work of reaching out to students, doing our best to ensure all students are learning, we have to, according to Jean, “speak truth to power.”

I think Jean has in mind the same thing as the late, great, soul singer Solomon Burke when he sings that none of us are free when one of is chained.  (You can see Solomon Burke sing the song with the Blind Boys of Alabama here). To speak truth to power is to speak out when we see oppression in its many and varied manifestations.  To speak truth to power is to speak up when we hear racist or sexist comments, when we hear people dismissing children by holding low expectations for students who hold amazing potential, or whenever we hear others being objectified, dehumanized, or stereotyped.

When we speak truth to power, we often have to be the voice for others who have lost the ability to speak for themselves, because institutions or individuals have misused their power to diminish others. Speaking truth to power, I believe, is not just about standing up to those who are above us in an organization.  When we speak truth to power, we should also stand up for what is right when we see oppression rise up in more subtle ways.

When we see someone being bullied, it is easy to recognize that we must act, but when we stand up against an organizational culture, it is much harder to step outside the culture and say what needs to be said. Too often, organizational culture trivializes those actions that are most important for moving forward, such as a deep belief in the moral purpose of teaching, a commitment to personal learning and growth, or articulation of the importance of being empathetic towards our students or their parents.

I had lunch not so long ago with a wonderful instructional leader, an unabashed Radical Learner, and during our meal together, I learned that she had just finished her PhD and that she passionately loved continuing studying about leadership, organizational change, and instruction.  She related that when her colleagues kind of gave her a blank stare as if to say they had no idea why someone would be so committed to learning, my friend held up her hand in the universal sign for loser, and said, “Yeah, I know, I’m a loser.”

Such is the power of culture.  We don’t want to suggest we are better than others, and we don’t want to stand out from a given culture in which we live or work, so we tend to acquiesce or put ourselves down.  But the truth is that my friend is anything but a loser—just the opposite, her personal learning makes her a better leader, a person much better able to make a difference.

And this is when speaking up is especially important.  Learning, personal growth, and commitment to students, these values need to be celebrated, not downplayed.  School culture can be as oppressive as any power-tripping egomaniac. Speaking truth to power, then, is not just about addressing oppressive leaders.  Speaking truth to power is about creating the kind of classroom culture that is best for everyone—students, educators, and parents.

As Susan Scott has explained, culture is shaped one conversation at a time.  When we speak truth to power, we speak up to create cultures where learning, humanity, and respect are celebrated, not trivialized.

And we need to take Solomon Burke’s words to heart:  “If you don’t say it’s wrong, then that says it’s right.”