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Education Activism Begins With Teachers

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Recently, I stumbled upon a podcast I had recorded with a friend as a college sophomore—one of the many relics of my enthusiasm for extracurricular activities that are still floating around the Internet today.

At first nostalgically, and then aghast at my overuse of the word “like,” I listened to the whole thing.

Most of my remarks were, well, unremarkable. However, one part struck me as particularly ironic. My friend asked me what I wanted to do after college. I told him: “I think I’m interested in the field of education. But I definitely don’t want to be a teacher.”

At the time, I was fascinated by the so-called crisis in urban education, and the various reform efforts that were taking place to combat this crisis. I had read every Jonathan Kozol book out there, and voraciously kept tabs on every new charter school model, celebrity reformer, and heralded urban success story. I was certain that when I graduated I would join this reform movement in any way possible but teaching—education policy, administration, non-profit work, you name it.

Funny how things turn out—this fall I am finishing my master’s degree in adolescent education, and seeking New York State certification as a secondary English teacher.

"Bright, social justice-oriented students should not be cavalierly dismissing teaching as an option."

This tidbit of recorded conversation really made me think, though. Why was teaching such an unappealing prospect to me? How did I transition from that attitude of disdain to pursuing teaching as my career? And how can bright, motivated students concerned with issues of social justice (as I had been) be encouraged to pursue teaching?

The dismissive attitude I once held toward teaching can most likely be attributed to the prevailing stereotypes that exist in our society regarding the profession. In books, movies, newspapers, or even in everyday conversation, one generally expects to find the teacher archetype to be either the overworked, underpaid, heroic missionary (think “Freedom Writers”), or the lazy, unqualified, system-drainer (think “Bad Teacher”).

Rarely are teachers portrayed as experts or authorities in their field. Rarely are doctors, lawyers, social workers, pharmacists or other highly educated professionals subject to the same level of scrutiny or stereotyping as teachers are. This perceived lack of professional respect did not appeal to me—nor did the unreachable standards of the “hero” teacher I had read about and seen so frequently exalted.

Life-Changing Connections

However, my deep interest in education led me to go into the field. My entry into this world, in my first year out of college, was through City Year, an AmeriCorps funded non-profit organization. As a City Year corps member, I was placed in a Chicago middle school with the purpose of providing dropout-prevention interventions to the most at-risk students. I worked alongside experienced teachers, providing tutoring, behavior-management assistance, and attendance incentives.

The experience of working directly with students—poor students of color who had been labeled “at risk”—changed my mind about the role I could see myself playing in the field of education. These students ceased to be stories, statistics, or “problems” to be solved (to which they are so often reduced in the public discourse). They became human beings with unique challenges, interests, personalities, and goals. Nowhere in my extensive reading on school reform had I learned about Alexis’s tenderness toward her younger siblings, or Mariyah’s talent in the school play, or Ruben’s flamboyant storytelling. And while I had read of poverty, of violence, and of tragedy, none of that really meant anything until Thomas showed me his essay about the murder of his brother.

I realized then that education activism begins at the individual level. Without an intimate understanding of the people involved in our education system, no meaningful change can be made. Teachers are uniquely positioned to understand what individual students truly need and to determine meaningful responses to these needs. Teachers are on the ground level of the fight for educational equity in a way that nonprofit workers, policymakers, or even administrators often are not.

With this in mind, after two years with City Year, I enrolled in a graduate-level teaching program.

There is certainly no shortage of teachers these days in many subjects and geographical areas. In fact, one of the factors initially stopping me from pursuing teaching was the conventional wisdom that teaching jobs are hard to come by.

Still, I believe that college students—particularly those college students who are highly motivated and dedicated to issues of social justice—should be encouraged to pursue the teaching field. Too often these students are bypassing teaching because it is not seen as an attractive professional option. Organizations such as Teach For America seek to attract these types of students and change the prevailing stereotypes about teaching. However, traditional pathways to teaching (and the greater support and training they offer) should also solicit these students more actively.

Bright, social justice-oriented students should not be cavalierly dismissing teaching as an option, as I once did as a 19-year-old. Let’s change the narrative about teaching to one that attracts as many motivated and dedicated students as possible.

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