The magical glitter unicorn public schools of our collective dreaming

The solution is out there. This teacher thinks that if we work together, the answer to all of our public school problems will no longer be a myth.

Photo by mararie.

Can we dream with our wildest imaginations of a magical glitter unicorn public school system? Could it actually manifest itself in Richmond, Virginia?

“And these children that you spit on as they try and change their worlds are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” – David Bowie, Changes

Today is the day before the last day of summer for people like me. I return to my post as an elementary school art teacher in Richmond Public Schools, for my 6th year at my school (that I love dearly for so many reasons) this coming Wednesday. I feel excited. I have some new things I want to try this year, I love teaching art and thinking about how to best create an environment conducive to kids and learning.

Last night, I received a group message on Facebook sent to several local teachers about a surprise (not the good kind) email from a principal in the district mentioning that there will be mandatory, unpaid professional development hours added to our schedules each week. This was the first that the sender of the message had heard of this change.

I had sort of heard about it but had put it out of my mind as I try not to worry about the things that are “implemented” in my district until it is indeed time to implement them. I also really wanted to just let summer be the best it could be. This ignoring is simply my coping mechanism, not a way that I would prefer to function in my role as professional educator.

Oh, well.

I will not list here my own grievances with the policies, procedures, missteps, clerical errors, incompetence, communication breakdowns, and general lack of morale that I have witnessed and experienced since I first started with the district. And unfortunately there is a substantial list.

I am more concerned with the grievances of the parents and kids. I am more concerned with the exodus that I watch each year as students are pulled from our school and sent to private schools, county schools, home schools, or maybe even unschools. Parents are doing what they feel is best for their children with whatever resources that they can muster. I don’t fault them.

I chose my choice. I chose Richmond Public Schools.

In 2010, when I left my administrative role at Virginia Commonwealth University and tabled my recent duties starting up a new non-profit for creative reuse, I decided instead to pour all my energies into my new position as an elementary art teacher. I didn’t look back. I chose my choice. I chose Richmond Public Schools. I didn’t interview with the counties, I wanted to work with the kids of the city where I live.

I wanted to be a part of Richmond Public Schools and I still do. I am not a victim here. I won’t become one. The sad thing is, there are victims, and they are pint-sized. It’s not right.

These days, I do feel kind of like a member of a huge dysfunctional family. I have been one of the lucky ones that gets to work at a school with a lot of support from parents and from my administration. I work at a school where students don’t all look the same. There is a lot of life in my school and joy and togetherness. The teachers are dedicated and excellent. The students are eager and lively.

I try not to fret too much about the dullness that I’m starting to see in the eyes of my colleagues and the resignation in the eyes of the PTA parents, burnt out from worry about the future of the schools where they are zoned and overworked from trying so hard to make schools better.

The Facebook message chain was a fact-finding mission about what is actually expected from us this year. Even now, as I make final edits to this essay, more teachers are chiming in that this added unpaid time away from our families and our lives is news to them. Folks feel frustrated.

Here was part of my response:


There are things about the current state of public education that have made my skin crawl and my blood boil. I’ve been disheartened, like so many other teachers. My own eyes have lost a lot of the shine they used to have when I talked about my work. I’ve been feeling frustrated.

I’m not an activist and I never have been one. I’m not all that political and in fact, I stay away from most of it. But, it seems that politics just might be driving public schools into the ground. I’ve heard so many describe the whole thing as a sinking ship. Parents are pulling out their kids, and teachers are leaving their profession for anything else.

Well, as an idealist, artist, lover and dreamer, I refuse to go down and I refuse to ignore the fact that there are vulnerable children in this metaphorical sinking ship.

It is so glaringly and depressingly obvious just how little we (our city, our culture) regard the littlest, most vulnerable ones.

I’ve learned along the way how to self-rescue. I was taught these things by teachers. I can roll my own boat back up. I can read and think for myself. I can run game on Bloom’s taxonomy. I have higher level thinking skills and critical thinking skills, too. I have 21st century skills. I am a product of public education, through and through, and I’m proud of that.

If I don’t participate in the self-rescue mission, then who will be there in the boat with the little tiny people that don’t have the option to walk away from their school system? Who will teach them that the school system that feeds them strawberry milk and microwave donuts and calls that a nutritious breakfast may not have their very best interests at heart?

It is so glaringly and depressingly obvious just how little we (our city, our culture) regard the littlest, most vulnerable ones.

You know who does care for them? Their teachers (most of them, anyway).

An advocate is someone who pleads the cause of another. I am an advocate for public education. I am an advocate for the children who are forced participants in this system. I am an advocate for the love and the compassion and the kindness that can be taught.

I’m also an advocate for myself. I am a teacher because I love to teach. That is what I want to do and what I plan to do. I can’t go into the homes of my students and change things but I can change what I say and do with them in the 45 minutes of time I spend with them each week.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Ghandi

I believe in public schools, the idea of them like I believe in America, as an idea. I have a dream like my hero, Martin Luther King Jr. I believe in the goodness in people and I know that we can do better for these kids. I believe that we can start to see all the children of our city as our own kids. We can demand better for all of them, no matter where they live, what they look like, or how much money their parents do or do not have.

I want my art, my teaching and my life to become indistinguishable like Elle Luna wrote about here in her essay, The Crossroads of Should and Must.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

In the online conversation, another veteran teacher joked that he would be making glitter unicorns this year. I assume he is choosing to be jovial, to make light of things rather than worry about the time added to our schedules so that we can be “developed,” “professionally”.

I laughed and then decided to expand on his “lesson plan” and issue a call to anyone who has a working brain and a dream for solutions. I am especially excited to get the kids involved in the conversation.

Let’s save ourselves.

Let’s just get in a whole new boat together.

Let’s dream our way out of this nightmare.

Together, we might just manifest the most perfect, utopian, magical, glitter unicorn public school system there ever was.

Join me in dreaming. Get crazy with it. Make your own glitter unicorn as a metaphor for what schools could be. Think about the resources that are here in our town, how can these become a part of how we educate. What if the whole city becomes the classroom?

The Internet can be a lesson plan, an artist statement, a receptacle for hopes, dreams, and wishes. A place for collective consciousness to gather itself, dust off the dried up bullshit we’ve been sitting in, and walk away from these failures of the past and toward a new vision, with rainbows to sit on, instead.

“Speak happiness, sad enough without your woes.” – Bob Marley

Let’s speak and share about the things that schools are doing that are right and good. Let’s speak about the people who dedicate their lives to loving and teaching children how to lift themselves up and out of poverty. Let’s have some gratitude and perspective about how great we actually do have it when we approach our lives from a global perspective.

I’m not the only one who feels that there needs to be a change for the better.

Haters gonna hate and I’m a lover, y’all.

Our art/vision casting assignment

Find some unicorn coloring sheets from the Internet or draw your own unicorn. Here’s some:


Pick your favorite.

Print it.

Color it while thinking about a perfect magical utopian glitter unicorn school.

Add glitter if available.

Write your vision of your magical glitter unicorn public school on or with your art.

Post the whole thing to social media, if you like, and use #rvaglitterunicorn.

Or, try to color the unicorn with kids. Ask them what they think. Talk about it. Help them write their thoughts down, too.

Post it somewhere public.

Share with others.

It all starts with a vision of what we want, where we want to go, who we want to be, what schools could look like. There are great things happening in Richmond and there will be even greater ones ahead once we know where we are heading.

Dream on, dreamers.

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