Jay Mathews: Work Hard, Be Nice, Find Inspiration

Those of us engaged in training-teaching-learning are perpetual sponges—a form of existence that sometimes produces rewards in places where we least expect to find them. We would not usually seek guidance and inspiration for our adult-learning endeavors, for example, within the pages of a book about an innovative set of charter schools. Yet that is exactly what awaits us in Jay Mathews’ Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.

Let’s just acknowledge this up front: Mathews, as a long-time education writer for the Washington Post, displays an enviable ability to produce a real page-turner on a topic far from the top of the average person’s reading list; the narrative flow is far more engaging than much of what we find in contemporary novels, and the emotional engagement he fosters has us rooting for his protagonists and feeling the occasional personal losses he documents. And as he chronicles the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin’s journey from being two inexperienced yet idealistic, highly energetic, and incredibly persistent Teach for America alums to running a successful and Charles Bronfman Prize-winning chain of charter schools—the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)—nurturing disadvantaged children, he tells an archetypal tale that any trainer-teacher-learner can appreciate.

When we read of Feinberg and Levin’s efforts to find appropriate learning spaces for their young students, we are reminded of the challenges we sometimes face—and must remain committed to overcoming—in finding (or creating) onsite and online learning spaces that work for the adults we serve. As we read about how they recognized their own limitations as educators and how they pursued the best mentors they could find, we see patterns and practices that serve us day to day as we sponge up what we lack by learning from the trainer-teacher-learners we admire.

As we absorb the wonderful story of how they engaged their youngest learners in actions to shame reticent school district officials into action—thereby providing a lesson in civics by inspiring the students to engage in civic action—we have an extremely important example of the importance of providing learning opportunities that are grounded in experience that puts what is being learned into action—experiential learning at its best.

It’s not all rosy in Work Hard, Be Nice.  Mathews and his interviewees do not shy away from acknowledging the occasional small and large failures that sometimes come from overzealous actions—which makes the book even more valuable to those of us applying its lessons to our adult-learning endeavors. There are also reports from critics of the KIPP approach and from those who attempt to denigrate KIPP’s reported successes—higher test scores than seen among similar groups of students not attending KIPP schools, a willingness to spend much more time in classrooms than other students spend—by questioning whether it’s a learning model that can and does work for all members of its target audience.

We are, however, never in doubt as to where Mathews himself stands on the issue of whether KIPP is worth studying: “Over time, the debate about KIPP among educators has grown, full of misinformation and misimpressions because few of the people talking about KIPP schools have actually seen them in action,” he writes (p. 281). And he fully intends to continue exploring the KIPP model, he adds: “In the search for the best schools, I still have a lot of work to do” (p. 317).

And if for nothing other than the tenacity that Mathews and his subjects display in Work Hard, Be Nice, the book deserves—and needs—to be on every trainer-teacher-learner’s reading list. For inspiration. Assurance. And sponge-worthy material.

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One Response to Jay Mathews: Work Hard, Be Nice, Find Inspiration

  1. Jay Mathews says:

    Thanks very much for this lovely and erudite review.

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