Dear Future Educator,
I’d like to begin this letter with some brutal honesty. Public Education in the United States has come upon very difficult and trying times. Teachers have become scapegoats for a slew of societal ills, from the failing economy to our nation’s political and societal fall from grace in the international arena. Standards and assessment have become the educational buzzwords of the 21st century as they were in the early 20th century during the social efficiency movement, when intelligence tests were used as weapons of social control that effectively annihilated the dreams and aspirations of thousands upon thousands of American school children, particularly newly arrived immigrants. This time, however, the attack is more widely dispersed and it is not just students, but schools, teachers and even the teaching profession that have come under the microscope and been dissected, in order to be “assessed.” In this process many have been found inadequate, failing, or sub-standard. Many loving, caring teachers have lost their jobs as a result; many welcoming community schools have been forced to close their doors. More and more frequently I am finding it difficult as a teacher educator to encourage idealistic young people like yourselves to pursue a field that currently promises little to no creative fulfillment, inadequate spiritual, emotional or financial compensation, and dehumanizing and degrading conditions and treatment.
Every year, I teach a course called “Introduction to the World of the Learner.” It is the introductory course for the education department at the college where I am presently employed. Every fall I am confronted with twenty to thirty eager faces in my classroom–-clueless as to the realities of their chosen occupation, but desirous to impart knowledge, change lives, and in so doing improve the world. I teach them about the great power and responsibility they hold in their hands. I tell them that teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic is but a miniscule part of what they will actually be doing as educators-–a “front” for the much greater enterprise of nurturing the human mind and the cultivation and development of future leaders, thinkers, activists and change agents. I teach them to love their students, to be compassionate, to teach tolerance and acceptance for all humanity. In response they look at me perplexedly and ask, “How?” How can they be expected to achieve any of these lofty ideals when daily they are handed scripted lesson plans, asked to teach out of racist and biased textbooks and are bombarded with the pressures of teaching test prep skills for the never ending stream of standardized exams that plague their existence as educators? I insist that it can be done – that it must be done – that it is our job to teach truth regardless of the constraints placed upon us as educators in the American public school system. But then, after the class has been dismissed, I often feel hopeless, drained, and sad. Am I in fact deluding myself and lying to my students? Am I simply playing the role of the Greek King Sisyphus destined to roll the proverbial boulder up the hill only to watch it roll back down time and time again? Recently I have days when I truly believe that our public school system is done for – that charter schools and privatization gurus will rule the day and our country will take a huge step backward and in the process destroy the single most successful example of true democracy in America. I am so tired of fighting against what seems like the inevitable that it barely even registers as a disappointment.
So what can I say to you that can instill hope, optimism and light during this educational “dark age?” I became a teacher over twenty years ago for various reasons-to be honest, most were of a practical nature. I was a young mother and needed a job that would provide a stable income with health benefits and summers and holidays off to be with my child. Many of you may have initially been attracted to the teaching profession for similar reasons. My first teaching job was as an ESL instructor for adult immigrants, and later for at risk-teens at a neighborhood community school. I chose to teach these particular groups because I cared about their circumstances. Perhaps it was partly because I saw in them my own parents, who had also come to this country as immigrants many years earlier. Regardless of the reason, I found that teaching them fed my soul in some inexplicable way. I discovered a sense of self worth that I had never experienced before. I loved literature, so I decided to teach English literature; I loved acting and theater, so I became a drama teacher; I loved human diversity and the richness of world cultures, so I became a social studies teacher; I loved learning about the wonders of our natural world, so I became a science teacher. I pursued all knowledge that was available to me and was passionate about it all. There is perhaps no other profession in the world that would have encouraged and satisfied my quest for knowledge in so many diverse areas. If all the schools in the world were to disappear tomorrow, I would still teach because teaching is what I do and a teacher is who I am. I have a deep yearning for knowledge and for sharing that knowledge with others. For me there is no greater satisfaction than seeing that spark of understanding in a person’s eyes and knowing that I have helped put it there, or knowing that I have improved the quality of another human being’s life by exposing them to new possibilities and experiences. Knowledge has the ability to transform, reshape, and alter all that we know. Its potential is limitless. And as educators it is this gift, the gift of transformation, that we bring to all those whose hearts and minds we touch.
So let the politicians, economists, bureaucrats and billionaires wage their ugly battles regarding education. They cannot win. Public education will survive in this country, and in the world, because it is only through education that we have tasted the profundity of true freedom – the freedom to know, understand dream, achieve and transform – the freedom to recognize and overthrow all forms of oppression and control. And we will not be turned back ever again. Let the storm rage on. It will blow over as it has in the past-but the flame of knowledge ignited in the human mind over 35,000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization cannot be extinguished. Because when all is said and done, education is not a building or a curriculum or a lesson plan. It is life itself. By becoming a teacher, you have chosen to become a conduit of knowledge and truth in a world often marred by deception, manipulation and greed. It is a “calling” that will both challenge and fulfill you in ways you cannot begin to imagine. I cannot conceive of a greater purpose in the entire world.
Medgar Evers College