Our Departure and a New Chapter


I was twenty-seven when I started teaching. George W. Bush was the President, I had hair, and the Mariners playoff drought was only five years-long. I've been doing this long enough that when I started I had an overhead projector with a jar full of Vis-a-Vis markers in my classroom.

Teaching is my profession and I love its moments: first days, conferences, graduation, the staff meet-up after Homecoming. When I got into teaching, my goal was to have a positive impact on my community. To help create better, smarter students as well as neighbors. This is the origin the “Nerd Farmer” moniker.

I'm a grump, but I'm an idealist. When I co-founded Teachers United in 2011, one of the criticisms of the organization was that we were a gaggle of newbie, idealistic, pie-in-the sky teachers. I remember one commenter on an early Seattle Times op-ed I penned saying, “let’s see what you think when you’ve been in a classroom for a while.” The implication was that we would lose our idealism and passion for equity and justice. Well, here we are, bub.

This is my thirteenth year in the classroom. I’m proud of my work as a teacher. I think I've made an impact on my students and the city. For the last several years people have constantly (and annoyingly) asked me “what’s next for you?” The implication was that I should run for office (hard nah), become a principal (nope, nein, never), or do policy advocacy full-time (not for me). I pride myself on not having to please voters, foundations, or funders. If I don't need your vote or grant money, I don't have to soft-pedal my truth to you. I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve never wanted to lead a school or push paperwork. I just want to teach and feel like I'm being successful and fully supported in doing it.

By my reckoning, I have taught well over fifteen-hundred students in Tacoma. I’ve started my teacher tree: Alex, Ty-isha, Janelle, and Corey with AJ and several others on the way. That's the work.  The next generation is better than us. I see it everyday. I look forward to living in the world they and my students want to build. I think about this world often.

But it’s time for a change for me, a new chapter. I've shared my deep frustrations about the state of the teaching profession in the US elsewhere. I've worked at Lincoln for a decade. I love the school, the staff, and especially my students. But I realized at some point this year, that in order to stay in the classroom, I needed to do something different. One of the most consequential books I've ever read is called “Quitting America” by Randall Robinson. It's his story of leaving the US and relocating to Saint Kitts and Nevis. Frankly, given the state-of-affairs in the US, I'm not sure I want to break-up, but I do think I want to see other people for a while.

This summer Hope and I will move abroad. In August, we’ll be joining the staff of the American Community School, an international school in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. I'll continue teaching AP American Government and ninth grade social studies. For years, we've taught students to be global citizens, now I'm going to be one. That's kinda dope. We’ve already researched and adopted a new soccer team, Al Wahda FC.

My new colleagues at ACS

My new colleagues at ACS

Don't worry though, you’ll still hear from me. My Twitter Fingers ain't going nowhere, Nerd Farmer will continue (once we get settled), and I'll likely be writing more. You may see me again when President-Elect Inslee is putting together his Cabinet in 2021 (mostly kidding) or if the Seattle Sounders open a residency academy (deadly serious).

But for now, for me, it's time for a new challenge.


Stop Police from Killing People or Admit You Don't Care

Charleena Lyles , photo provided to media by her family

Charleena Lyles, photo provided to media by her family

On June 16, in St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted on all counts in the shooting of Philando Castile. The dashcam footage of the shooting was released to the public yesterday and it is horrifying to watch. The most astute analysis of the incident came from @ChrisCJackson, who noted, “If the first instinct to a black man informing you that he's legally armed is fearing for your life, maybe you shouldn't be a cop.”

In the video, the officer is a panicky mess--swearing and screaming at Castile’s partner to remain calm and not move. He’s doing this (not calmly himself) after shooting her husband and still pointing a gun into the car. Yanez was terminated by his department the day of his acquittal. The man is not fit to wear a badge or serve in any capacity in law enforcement.

On Sunday morning, while I was talking to local columnist Matt Driscoll about the Castile verdict, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant 30 year-old black woman, was shot and killed by Seattle Police in front of her children. She was the 558th person killed by American law enforcement this year. There have been eight more since then (as of 7:30am on 6/21).

In 2016, that total was 1161. In 2015, it was 1216. I refuse to accept this. You should as well.

Sadly, many folks are actually quite okay with it. In the days since the Castile verdict and the Lyles shooting, I’ve seen more than the usual logical gymnastics and rhetorical contortion to justify the taking of Castile’s, Lyles’ and hundreds of other lives. People on the internet, particularly certain white males (every one of the following is a quote or paraphrase of a response from a white male) seem to able to justify or explain away an incredible amount of violence to black bodies:

I say stop killing black people, y’all say stop making it about race.

I say stop killing black people, y’all say I’m playing the race card.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say the officer feared for his life.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say all lives matter.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about black-on-black crime.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say he was smoking weed.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say she had a prior record.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say what about the violence in Baltimore & Chicago?

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about pulling our pants up.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about hoodies and dreads.

I say stop killing black people, y’all wanna talk about black unemployment.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about how there are too many single moms.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about the music our kids listen to.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about how the victim was no angel.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about our kids having no discipline.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say we have to wait and hear both sides.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say we have to let the investigation play out.

I say stop killing black people, y’all call me a cop hating faggot.

I say stop killing black people, y'all excuse the officer’s panic, but expect perfection from their victim.

I say stop killing black people, y'all find every excuse you can to justify our deaths.

Fellas, next time I say "stop killing black people," just admit it, you really don't care.

We spend a fair amount of time in my classroom talking about encounters with law enforcement. I started after the Mike Brown shooting; it generates buy-in and is relevant for my students. I use the frame of police encounters to teach about the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 14th Amendments. As a part of that teaching we do a workshop on dealing with police officers with three takeaways:

  • First, remain calm, always--even if the officer doesn’t.
  • Second, seek to disengage and end the encounter. Ask, “Am I being detained? Or am I free to go?”
  • Third, film the police.

None of this advice should be controversial, but it is--especially when coming from a black face. But, if getting called “divisive,” a “racebaiter”, an “idiot”, or a “cop hating faggot” are the price of doing business, I’m here for that work.  

Before this year is up, American police will kill another 500-600 people on our streets. We have the power to stop this: We can change use-of-force policies for local departments. We can end the capricious enforcement of petty traffic laws in order to generate municipal revenue. We can implement the common sense policy recommendations of Campaign Zero. We just have to care enough about the victims to do so.

And by we, I mean you.

Trump Persuadables: My Evolving, More Pragmatic Worldview

Introducing 2016 Republican Gubernatorial Nominee Bill Bryant to my students last month

Introducing 2016 Republican Gubernatorial Nominee Bill Bryant to my students last month

When I was young I believed in magical adults. I was taught or convinced myself that there was this circle of elite, highly-educated folks out there who knew what was going on in the world and had answers to all the complex issues. I was born at the twilight of the Carter presidency so my “discovering what is happening in the world years” were largely during the Reagan & HW Bush administrations. Admittedly, I was an odd kid; I remember revering folks like James Baker, a Republican presidential whisperer, who served in several administrations. I may not have agreed with folks like Baker on policies, but they were at least smarter than everyone I knew (or so I thought) and they had life figured out (or so I thought).

Adulthood, time, reality, the War in Iraq, the 2008 Housing Collapse, the response to Katrina, the general dysfunction of the Democratic Party, etc. have all helped to disabuse me of much of this. Moreover, over the past few years I’ve paneled and met with state school superintendents, Senators, Harvard educated fancy-folk, and a couple of billionaires. I’ve found that my mediocre high school GPA, community college attendance, and state university education often stand up well against theirs. I’ve shed my belief in the cabal of wise, magical adults. If you’re dorky enough to read this, then the answers we need to the societal questions we face are within you.

That said, I’m still an institutionalist. I believe in the power of the state and in the importance of having thoughtful folks in important roles in our society. The anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of the Trump Moment repulse me. Throw-the-bums-out-ism may feel good, but when the national fever breaks, I think it’ll be clear: we’re better off with “statist bums” from the ideological mainstream of either party than “outsiders” who govern by cliche, white-ethno-nationalism, and authoritarian populism.

At times, I feel like I’m shifting into an early stage black Andy Rooney--I don’t think we read enough; I feel like we don’t learn lessons from history. Post-election, I’ve diversified my news line-up. I’ve made it a point to read the Sunday paper. I’ve discussed with my students the need for active rather than passive news consumption--seeking out thoughtful journalism rather than passively consuming what shows up on their timelines. Via my podcast I’m trying to have more thoughtful conversations about the interconnectedness of issues (economics, politics, education, journalism, etc.).

I have a lot of concerns about our collective future. I’m not one of those “Trump voters are all racists” or “if you voted for Trump, you’re an idiot” people. I think the vast, vast majority of Trump voters really, really hated Hillary Clinton and really, really like the idea of massive tax cuts (but not the consequences: debt and deep discretionary spending cuts). In this moment, we have to differentiate between “Trump Supporters” and “Trump Persuadables,” and folks like us have to talk to folks like them about our collective future. Oh man, twenty-five-year-old me hates thirty-seven-year-old me for writing that sentence.

To that end, I’m going on a conservative AM talk show later this month to talk about my teaching. I hosted the GOP Gubernatorial Nominee as a guest lecturer in my classroom, and I plan to have some Republican electeds on the Nerd Farmer Podcast in May. We need a more thoughtful and engaged citizenship. In this era of political polarization we need to intentionally cultivate difficult conversations across ideological lines. And people like twenty-five year-old me have to become comfortable making common cause with folks they don’t agree with on every issue.

I think too many of us are taking an “it’ll all work out” approach. I don’t buy that. There’s a non-zero probability we’re headed toward a dark, violent, less prosperous future. Recently, while discussing Russia’s democracy-in-name-only-surveillance-state, Yale Professor Timothy Snyder said that "Russia is a possible negative future for the United States.” If we don’t know, teach, and understand our history and safeguard our norms and institutions, regression becomes as likely an outcome as progress. This is how the Visigoths sacked Rome. We aren’t guaranteed a hyper-egalitarian, Star Trek Federation, techno-fabulous near-future. We have to earn that.