Education Blog

Why Teach?

Kids are intriguing people. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. In the early years, they taught me as much as I taught them, imparting life lessons they had earned the hard way on rough streets as I set about sparking an interest in history. And we all gained from it.

Looking beyond tough and gruff exteriors, I discovered vulnerabilities that students had carefully hidden, fearing that revealing a softer side might elicit ridicule or, worse, bullying. Countering that required me to find ways to uncover those softer skills and present them as just that: skills. In so doing, gifts and talents were often revealed as well, allowing students who may not have shone in class ever before to take a bow. Watching them blossom under the admiration and applause of their peers was priceless. That’s another reason I became a teacher.

Then there were the “smart” kids. Students who had always been lauded for their intelligence, they often defined themselves by it, becoming disproportionately overwrought by wrong answers even when their grades still reflected an A. For them, a 92 was so far below 100 that the fact that both were considered A’s didn’t matter; a 92 was not perfection and that was all that mattered to them. Helping them learn to value excellence over perfection, competing only against their own previous grades and not the grades of others, was a challenge. But sometimes I succeeded. Those times also bolstered my belief that I had chosen the right profession.

Ultimately, it may well have been the rapport between myself and my students that I most enjoyed and valued. More than any other element, it was this that kept me a teacher for nearly a quarter century. Being deemed a trusted person, even a confidante, one whose counsel students solicited and respected, was both a high honor and a great responsibility. My efforts to care and nurture while also encouraging their self-reflection and their own sense of responsibility forged bonds that have withstood the test of time. I treasure these beyond measure.

There are so many reasons for why we teach. For me, my students were the commonality for all my reasons. And while your reasons may not match mine, it’s important to know what they are. At the end of the day, I hope they are about your students as well. Those reasons will ground you and sustain you on difficult days when you question whether this is really what you should be doing. In fact, your reasons for teaching will spur you on when you might otherwise walk away.

So, at this midpoint of the school year, when the weather is dreary and you sometimes feel the same way, be encouraged. If you find joy in the journey, if your heart sometimes soars over occurrences in your classroom, and your students are “your kids,” you’re in the right profession. What’s more, you make a difference — one that some students will remember and value always. That’s why you teach.

The Power of Kindness and Other Fine Qualities

Obviously, school is all about learning, which, to the average person, means academics. However, as educators know, there’s so much more to education. From music and art to physical education and shop classes, electives help to enrich and round out students. Yet even that is not everything. The truth is that the softer skills, those related to character development, are an equally important component, though not nearly as acclaimed.

Empathy, integrity, compassion, kindness, appreciation, gratitude — these kinds of skills are what make a person whole. Indeed, just as your kindergarten teacher always said, playing well with others matters. While content knowledge may well get students through the door of opportunity, soft skills often determine whether they will stay there. And these skills matter forever, not just in kindergarten.

It’s why I held Nice Week in my class each year, having students draw names and anonymously be kind to that student each day for a week. Enjoying giving and receiving kindness in equal measure, my students always asked to repeat the exercise during second semester. The activity also served to draw them closer, not just to the ones with whom they exchanged kindness, but also with the rest of the class as they collaborated on ways to extend that kindness.

So I was elated by a similar project I read about recently. In it, each student drew a name, carefully observed the person throughout the day and then, at the end of the day, reported every good act or quality they noted. Like my students, those involved in this project, though younger than my high schoolers, requested to continue the project as well.

In both instances, what the students gained went beyond the increased kindness and thoughtfulness toward one another. Understanding, insight, empathy, caring, consideration and a good deal of selflessness were part of the mix as well. In the end, they were all better for the experience. What’s more, these were qualities that they took with them, as they were now instilled in the students.

While content knowledge is essential, so are these inner qualities. Incorporating ways to bolster them doesn’t diminish time spent on academics but does engage and enrich students. That alone makes them worthwhile. The fact that they also facilitate teaching the whole child makes kindness and all the other character traits priceless.

Immigration, Racism and DACA: Why Silence is Not an Option for Educators

Immigration, racism, politics—volatile yet unquestionably timely issues, they are so incendiary that they’re usually touched only by teachers of government, civics and other social studies classes. And “touched” is the operative word as not many teachers delve deeply into these quagmires for fear of being consumed by them. What will the principal say? How might parents respond? Rather than face the hard discussions and uncover the painful truths, many opt to ignore such topics or tread very lightly on them, bringing them up on on days like today when Dr. King is celebrated, even then giving them only superficial study. It’s time for that to stop.

In the wake of the unequivocally racist statements attributed to the President of the United States a few days ago, it’s time to move certain aspects of politics into all classrooms—namely immigration, DACA and the racism that seems to permeate these topics. All across this country, students born in other countries , or whose parents or grandparents were, fill our classrooms. So when educators shun discussions of the vile words hurled at some of those countries, and by extension, at those students, the very existence of the students is essentially negated. At least, that’s the way the students feel.

Then there are the students who have lived here virtually all of their lives, having been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)program. When they are now threatened with deportation to countries they don’t even know, and teachers remain mute, the abject terror that besets these students every day goes unspoken and unaddressed, but continually grows nonetheless.

If you think having no students of color in your class exempts you from such discussions, think again. By choosing not to respond, which is as strong a choice as any, you impact your students in long-lasting ways:

  • White students begin to see students of color as somehow not only different but also inferior. After all, why else would they be unwanted in this country?
  • Without students of color there to present a counterbalance, white students absorb the racial attitudes projected in the news and, by the silence of adults, in their communities.
  • Racial and ethnic stereotyping and the racist and discriminatory practices that accompanies such thought patterns then emerge and become accepted.
  • The cycle continues with another generation.

Yes, all of that ensues from an educator’s unwillingness to confront social atrocities. However, lest those who teach immigrant students of color think that by doing so they have done enough, consider the equally great responsibility that rests with you:

  • Students of color, immigrant and native-born, have been shown to be marginalized often in U.S. schools, based on numerous studies. If you don’t address the hatred, name-calling, threats of deportation and all the other vitriolic actions these students face attendant to race and ethnicity, you haven’t taught the whole child. You may have addressed the student with your content, but what about the rest of the child?
  • Students take their social cues in school not only from one another but from the adults in the building as well. When teachers ignore such blatant disrespect of one group of their students, why should the other students accord these same students with any respect?
  • Educators so often claim genuinely to care about their students. If the adults don’t openly and caringly address what the students experience, why would those students believe that you care about any other aspect of them?
  • And if you do care, how can what pains them, jeopardizes their peace of mind, robs them of their humanity and leaves them vulnerable to the inhumanity of others not break your heart?

In times like these, silence is not an option. Really, educators never have that option. Our students are depending on us.

Why All Students Need More Teachers of Color

Let’s begin with this basic fact: Teachers of color comprise just under 18 percent of all teachers in the United States. However, as of the 2014-2015 school year, students of color are a new majority in public schools, representing approximately 50.3 percent of all students. It’s a glaring disparity. And the repercussions are reverberating in both expected and unexpected ways. Consider the following:

  • The dearth of teachers of color means there not only are not enough teachers with a common background as the majority students, but also that the lack of commonality influences the way in which these students are often perceived, casting the students’ differences from the teachers in a negative light.
  • The clearly measured severity of the punishments enacted against students of color, as demonstrated by numerous studies, are not diminished by this increase in the number of students of color.
  • Continue reading “Why All Students Need More Teachers of Color”

What’s in a Name?

How many of your elementary school teachers’ names do you remember? Despite the many years that have elapsed, I remember all of mine, from Miss Sanford in kindergarten to Mrs. Maloney in eighth grade. And it’s likely that you do as well. In fact, students usually learn teachers’ names the first day of school. After all, while teachers have many students each year, students in the early years have only one teacher. That certainly makes the teacher and the name memorable. Now here’s the question: How quickly do you learn all of your students’ names? Continue reading “What’s in a Name?”