Open Letter to Cathie Black

Ms. Black, don't think that you're blazing any trails here. In 2002, to much less fanfare, I also left Hearst Corporation for a job at the New York City Department of Education.

At Hearst, I produced websites for several magazines. I was the hub connecting a staff of designers and techies with the magazine's editorial department. I did a good job, and it seemed the start of a long career with Hearst. But driven by an altruistic impulse that I've since become wise enough to curb, I left my cushy desk job to join the New York City Teaching Fellows, which places accomplished professionals into classroom teaching positions, even if said professionals have little or no background in education. (Sound familiar?)

Blinded by my past successes, I was convinced that the skills I had honed--my ability to communicate ideas to a diverse group of people, my creative problem solving, and my willingness to work long hours--would translate into my new role as a classroom teacher.

Oh, but they didn't.

Because while the stakeholders at Hearst all had different needs, spoke job-specific languages thick with jargon, and often had inflated egos that required taming, at the end of the day they worked with the same goal in mind: to sell magazines.

Not so at the under-performing public school deep in Brooklyn where I was placed to teach fifth grade. There, the players who should have been cooperating were at odds.

Take my colleagues. Many of them had been at the school for years, and had ties to the largely Black and Latino neighborhood that I, as a white male who grew up in a middle class suburb, could never have. They saw through me from day one, branding me an idealistic do-gooder swooping down from on high hoping to make a positive impact. Call it the new colonialism.

I'm sure my dewy eyed determination came across as hubris. My first day on the job I trashed decades worth of classroom material because I wanted to make my own from scratch. (I ended up lacking not only the time, but the know-how to do this properly.)

On top of my annoying attitude, I had no regard for the union contract. I loved the idea of worker solidarity, but when the principal asked for teachers to take on extra duties--spend one lunch a week with their students in the cafeteria, or patrol the playground at recess--I obliged, though my Union Representative told me that these requests weren't in the contract. Shouldn't the kids come first, I argued? She rallied the other teachers in protest, and I found myself the scorn of the faculty lunchroom. Not many teachers stepped in to lend me a word of advice or support after that.

It seemed that many of my moves, made with the intention of ignoring the soul-crushing bureaucracy and politicking of the system and acting with my student's best interests at heart, met similar ends. An initiative I spearheaded to create a school-wide discipline plan was read as both an act of aggression and weakness, a criticism of the principal's leadership style (or lack thereof) and an admission that I couldn't keep control of my classroom without outside help. The frequent messages and calls home to parents updating them of their student's progress (or lack thereof) became bothersome. I had my ear chewed off by several who preferred not to know.

I thought my status as an outsider would give me a fresh set of eyes, a unique approach to problem solving. Instead, I found myself fumbling and confused, always at odds when I thought myself in the right.

So Ms. Black, I don't buy it when the mayor says that because you have succeeded in business you will succeed as the head of the Department of Education. You know what you're doing in the magazine industry, no doubt. But those skills aren't necessarily translatable. The private and public sectors operate with two fundamentally different paradigms. The former is ruled by profit margins, while the latter is based on a goal of best educating New York City's children, the specifics of which not every stakeholder--from the principals to teachers, parents, and students themselves--agrees on, or knows how to measure, or envisions the path to achieve.

My career in the Department of Education only lasted a year. My best wishes to you for a longer run than that.

Brian Gresko is now on Twitter! Follow him at