Life-Changing Encounters: Harvey Scribner

When I attended the Master of Arts in Teaching program (MAT) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was a one year internship component. For a variety of reasons that I will discuss in later blog entries, I had already decided that I did not want to teach in a traditional classroom. And as I searched for acceptable alternatives, I found a dandy in my home state of Vermont.

Vermont had a new Commissioner of Education, Harvey Scribner, who had developed and passed a radical school reform plan called “The Vermont Design for Education.” The Vermont Design was controversial because it advocated for less structured educational experiences in the K-12 sector, similar to a program structure called the “Leicester School” method in England. Although it decentralized the actual planning to the local school district level, traditionalists were, nonetheless, outraged at the recommended departure from the norm. Though many districts never implemented the Vermont Design, several did. And for Scribner, it was a fight worth waging.

I first met Scribner in his office across from the State Capitol building in Montpelier to discuss the Vermont Design and my possible internship. Scribner — a gruff, pipe-smoking, energetic man with a twinkle in his eye — was once a poor kid from Liberty, Maine, who was now committed to the justice of a good education for all. I liked him immediately.

He hired me and I entered into a year-long leadership apprenticeship at the knee of a natural leader. As Scribner traveled Vermont arguing his position, I, as his driver in many instances, kept notes and gave him feedback during the long drives to and from the four corners of the state. On more than one occasion, Harvey would say to me “Peter, getting a leadership position is not enough. It is what you do with it that matters.”

I understood the message immediately. And I saw him model these words daily as he advocated for programs that would serve both under-served and well-off children; chastised the Elks Club for barring minority memberships; led the New York City school system; and mentored a generation of graduate students at U Mass-Amherst’s College of Education.

Throughout the years, Harvey Scribner’s influential words have stayed with me. And as I have gone forward in my career, I have tried to understand the leadership mandate — the opportunity — in each job and meet it head on. It was only in the US Congress, however, that I understood the deeper message: Know what you are willing to lose for.  The flip side of acting out of commitment and values is that you don’t always win. There can be a price extracted. But that’s a conversation for another day.

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