Remembering Don Shalvey – A Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream of Loving What We Do And Who We Do It With

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I was nearing completion of another column last night, when word came that Don Shalvey has passed away.

So I set that other article aside to craft this one paying tribute to a person who I have called …

… “the heart at the very heart of the charter school movement.”

Today I would like to talk about Folk within we Folk.

Folk who have led the way.

And have modeled for us all.

Constantly reminding us of what we’re trying to do and why.

And of the importance of loving what we do.

They are the Folk who are the heart at the very heart of the movement.

People, yes, who have been at the very center of what we have been trying to do for more than three decades now.

But, more than that, people who bring even more heart to the work than the rest of us mere mortals.

Wearing their passion on their sleeves.

And their love for young people.

And for Folk, all Folk, charter and non, who do all they can to make things better for young people.

Folk who see deeply into us and inspire us to bring our own hearts to the work at whole new levels.

Over and over again across untold numbers of other Folk.

Such that the collective heart at the heart of our movement grows.

And becomes something that sustains us.

And fosters within us a potential for impact far beyond what any of us could achieve if we were acting alone.

Of all the people who are the heart at the heart of the charter school movement, there is none that is more so …

… than Don Shalvey.

During our years of work here at CharterFolk, we have been blessed to have had Don’s regular contributions. Near the onset of his illness a year and a half ago, he was full of urgency to get out a post imploring us all to do what we love.

Hardly had that post gone out when I got an email from Don saying he had more to say. A week later it became …

Do What You Love, Part 2.

Showing us how to love what we do, while also loving who we do it with, all in the service of children, is perhaps Don’s greatest legacy.

In CharterFolk’s first year, Don and his “brother from another mother,” Larry Rosenstock, joined me for a CharterFolk Chat.

It was an hour, as you might expect, full of abundant humor and good cheer.

Ample evidence of two people loving what they do, and one another, such that they had no way to talk about their relationship without using familial terms.

Near the end of that hour, Don shared what he called his “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

That time in the year when a teacher has gotten just enough rest to begin dreaming again about the future.

It’s quintessential Don:

Then July came about, and we did what I would call my Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream, which was:

Who do I want to teach with?  Who do I want to work with? 

At the end of the day, the real chemistry is when you work with stunning colleagues.  A whole community of stunning colleagues. 

I think that’s what Larry did at High Tech High.  It’s certainly what I tried to do at Aspire …. And you did everything you could to make a community of stunning colleagues who were smarter than you.

When we did our recruiting for our first Aspire schools, we allowed people to apply in pairs and trios, which is unheard of in a typical public school system. But it’s a great notion because you’ve always got in any given school system two great kindergarten teachers who are friends who are wanting to work together.  But the opportunity never happens.

That’s how we got to great.  Allowing teachers to apply as pairs …!

The piece that you asked me, was there anything about our history, Jed, that newcomers to the charter arena should know.

It’s that guys like Larry and me believed that there should never be any secret sauce or any secrets.  We were all trying to build a sector.  And the only way we could build a sector was to see ourselves as trusted friends and allies …. 

I can recall saying to Larry, I’m thinking about this, this, this and this, and minutes later Larry would send it to me. He would email me systems that High Tech High had been working on that took hours and months and years to fine-tune.  He was giving them to me.  And I was doing the same thing. 

That is what really matters.  And if we lose that today, then the sector will not be what it is designed to be:  a formidable, purposeful test-kitchen in the interests of all children.

Over our more than two decades of working together, I learned a great deal from Don Shalvey. And he supported me in ways that are too numerable to recount herein.

But above all else, what I treasure most about my time with Don was having had the great privilege of being a part of his Midsummer Night’s Dream.

His magnetic force that drew people together.

Not just any people.

But people who were committed to being formidable and purposeful in the interests of children.

People who loved what they do.

And people, yes, who loved one another.

Stunning colleagues.

Like those who got California’s first charter school going …

And those who got California’s first charter management organization going …

And those who got a new nonprofit going that is improving opportunity across all of San Joaquin County.

All proof points that pairs and trios of educators coming together as trusted friends and allies, multiplied over and over again, can become a force formidable and purposeful enough to improve education for thousands upon thousand of students.

Perhaps the place where Don’s Midsummer Night’s Dream came alive more than any other place was his beloved ranch in Linden.

The place to which so many of us were drawn again and again, often literally midsummer.

In the backyard, the family has a tree.

An immense tree, under which we would sit and talk into all hours of the night.

A place where friendships formed and deepened, along with our shared commitment to the work.

That first year I was there, just as dark was falling, Don got up and flipped a switch, electrifying strands of lights that he had hung under the canopy of that tree.

I’ll never forget it.

Being in the light of Don Shalvey’s Dream:

Stunning colleagues.

A whole community of stunning colleagues.

Whose connections to one another felt nothing short of familial.

Supporting one another in the service of children.

A generation of educators brought together by the heart at the very heart of the charter school movement.

Whose canopy of light burns more brightly today than it ever has.

CharterFolk …

… forever animated by the Dream of Don Shalvey …

… on we go.