And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make
In July of 2019, I will be experiencing a lot of change in my career and personal life. I will have just ended my 14-year tenure at The Bay School of San Francisco. I will have just begun my new job as an independent school consultant for Bright Morning Consulting. And I will have just left my childhood home and state for the Pacific Northwest. Just thinking about it makes me a little dizzy. Writing about it makes my eyes blur. Knowing it’s happening scares me.
When I began my time at The Bay School, it was the second year of our school’s founding, and our entire faculty/staff hovered around 25 people. We were about to move into a beautiful space in the Presidio, and when we toured our fourth-floor “penthouse” (where many a CATDC event has taken place), we could see a 360º view of San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Transamerica building. In the midst of building a school, geography was a benefit. The Pacific Ocean was so close you could see tiny crests forming in the Bay, and for me, the water surrounding us was a symbol of possibility—a beginning. I wanted to stay there forever.
Coincidentally, the fall of my first year also was when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, displacing an entire city and exposing the grander inequities that undergird our nation. As inhabitants of the 9th Ward in New Orleans struggled to rebuild their community, The Bay School was beginning to build theirs, and as my younger-teacher self strived to make sense of nature’s power, I also was striving to make sense of the great disparity between the place I worked and the world around me.
Coming from six years of public school teaching in the Sacramento City Unified School District, the independent school world was a culture shock. I transitioned from a place where education was free and classes topped out at 35 students into a place where 16 students was considered a “big” class and where words like “admissions,” “tuition,” “development,” “access,” “privilege” dominated our conversations. I was now part of a new reality, one that would bring me much joy and curricular freedom while accompanying internal tensions surrounding equity and access.
Exploring Privilege, Advancing Equity
In my tenure at Bay I’ve had the privilege to do a lot of things. I’ve co-created a Humanities program; I designed literature and writing electives and had the platform and curricular freedom to share my passions with students; I helped build a mentoring program, a teaching fellows program, and an instructional coaching program; I became a school leader; I’ve served as a participant and a facilitator of many CATDC programs, all of which augmented my professional practice. At the center of all of this work resides the same questions I have been asking myself since the beginning: What does it mean to be educated? What is my purpose in working at this place? In serving independent school populations? And for 14 years I keep coming back to the same responses: equity and love.
As a cis-gendered white woman, there are so many ways I “pass” in independent schools. I’m part of the population independent schools were meant to serve. I think about that a lot. I also think about how easy it is for me, daily, to slip into the skin of privilege, to avoid what’s hard, to intellectualize inequity, to say I’m doing my part simply by having conversations about race and class and ability and all the ways the dominant culture infuses its insidious power in our sites. When I worked in public school, equity and inequity were front and center, every day. In independent schools, the work of equity is less visible. The system works for most of our students. And thus, my work has been actively choosing to make equity visible through my words and actions.
This active choice is a daily commitment: to see differently, to unlearn, to examine my own ways of thinking and being, to love people where they are and to meet them there, to open doors, to expose challenges. While I don’t always hit the mark, and while I’m still avoidant at times, blind at times, clumsy at times, love is what drives me forward: love of our students, love of our teachers, love of community, love of learning, and love of a world that could be better for future generations. Because of this love, I fight for equity.
Weathering New Storms
My final three years at my site have been punctuated by a different type of hurricane: that of a polarized and fractured nation. Just as Hurricane Katrina exposed the vast inequities in New Orleans, our current political landscape exposes even bigger chasms among us. The political divide is further punctuated by an ever-changing climate, one that reminds us that nature always wins, that until we work collectively to reverse the damage to our planet, our communities, and to the damage we enact on one another, we face a bleak future.
For my part, I hope that my philosophy has played a role in reversing some of the damage. I hope that when I’ve asked teachers to consider ways to promote equity in their classes, when I’ve asked those I supervise to examine their biases and become reflective, when I’ve asked my students what it means to be educated and how an education can be a gateway to subverting the dominant culture and creating more room for the collective, when I’ve asked my peers to think about our strength as a team, when I’ve asked my workshop co-facilitators to practice what they preach, when I’ve asked myself to model the values I want to see in others, that somewhere in those questions resides a shift in beliefs and behaviors, and that the outcome isn’t a grandiose one, but an opening—a new way of examining the power we hold in schools, of using our privilege for forces of good so we can make lasting, meaningful change.
As I prepare to leave my school and the Bay Area in the coming days, I hope I’ve been able to address the questions that shaped my time here. I also know I’ve come to that scary intersection in my career where it’s time to go. Like many who are departing their school sites, it’s time for me to explore new unknowns, to navigate new waters and weather the internal and external storms that will inevitably emerge as the result of great change. I also know in my bones that it’s the right thing. For The Bay School, specifically, I hope I’ve played some small role in advancing equity. I hope the love I’ve expressed all these years—inside and outside the classroom— has been felt by those around me. And as I leave the home I’ve known for so long, as I explore new territories, communities, bodies of water, I’ll bring all I’ve learned with me: a heart full of love and a continuing desire to ensure everyone has what they need to thrive in this world.
Lori Cohen has worked in education (both public and independent) for two decades as a teacher, instructional coach, and school leader. She currently works as an independent school consultant for Bright Morning Consulting, supporting schools in a range of capacities. With the CATDC, Lori serves as coordinator for Teaching Foundations, a program that brings her joy and professional rejuvenation. In all her work, Lori actively engages in equity and social justice, striving to offer access and pathways for all school stakeholders to thrive.