Hanks wanted to talk about the prison pipeline, the steps that contribute to young people's incarceration--an issue that disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities. Acting up in school leads to punishment in school, then out of school, when there are more successful ways to handle those situations.
Hanks, now an administrator in Madison, Wisconsin's school system, used the first part of her speech to share her thought process about what to say that day. She considered inspirational quotes, then discarded them. She considered data. But in the end, she decided to tell a story of personal failure: The day she expelled a troublesome student, back in her days as a school principal in Chicago. First, however, she held her audience to an accounting of the roles educators play, often unintentionally, in contributing to the prison pipeline. Here's a sample:
If you’re a teacher, it’s in the moments when the unconscious bias — that we all have, by the way — compels you to address the “aggressive” or “off task” behaviors of your scholars of color while the identical behaviors of their white peers often go unaddressed, banishing those students to the main office, discipline referral form in hand while you continue on with your well-designed Common Core-aligned lesson. That’s your contribution.She continued with similar examples for administrators and superintendents, repeating "That's your contribution."
Then Hanks made a pivot to reflect what her audience was probably thinking:
Yes, systems matter, and yes, there are villains out there. But we’ve got to be way more honest and own our piece of this.
Now I can see somebody right now walking out feeling some type of way…. like, “Can you believe her? She was up there throwing shade, talking about ‘I’m building the pipeline’…I am a drum major for justice!”
But I promise you, it’s all out of love, and I promise you, I don’t have all the answers. I’ve just tried to learn from my mistakes.She followed with a story about running into a former student she'd expelled years earlier, and the shame she felt, knowing at this later stage in her career that she could have made wiser, kinder choices about how to handle this student. It's a highly personal anecdote of failure, and she does share what happened to the student and where they went from that chance encounter.
The Washington Post not only covered the speech, but reprinted the full text and video--unusual for any speech. “I was nervous about giving this speech because I’m certainly not an expert in this field,” Hanks told the Post. “I know colleagues and professors who are way more well-versed in all of the nuances of this work. But I feel like there are people who are like me, everyday trying to do the right things by kids, and who are confronted with these situations where you have to sometimes make courageous choices that ultimately can impact people for the rest of their lives.”
What can you learn from this famous speech?
- If you think the audience is doubting your words, say what they're thinking: This is a great tactic for speakers with controversial ideas and topics. It makes you seem less out of touch and more thoughtful, and lets you make your proof points even more strongly...or, as Hanks did, to pivot to a story you can tell on yourself.
- Use repetition for emphasis: Hanks uses a classic rhetorical device, epistrophe, repeating "That's your contribution" at the end of the paragraphs about what each educator group contributes to the problem. It's useful both for emphasis and for memory, drawing each set of contributions to the same close.
- Tell messy stories of personal failure: Hanks's personal story is a messy one--the kind Brené Brown recommends you tell without neatening it up to a "happily ever after" story. She does achieve redemption: The student turns out okay, and they make an agreement to work together so he can take his college admissions tests successfully. But the story isn't finished, as she tells it, and it focuses squarely on her failure and what it might have led to, and what she does differently today.
A principal on how meeting a student she expelled changed her approach to discipline