Education Opinion

A Matter Of Commitment

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 01, 1991 3 min read

Vivian Gussin Paley and Wendy Kopp are about as different as two people can be. Paley is a 62-year-old Chicago kindergarten teacher; Kopp is a 24-year-old entrepreneur who has raised millions of dollars to start a new national organization.

The teachers at St. Bonaventura School in inner-city North Philadelphia and the teachers at Sano Junior High School in Sano, Japan, are worlds apart, both geographically and culturally.

But all these people, whose stories appear in this issue of Teacher Magazine, have at least one thing in common: commitment. They are dedicated to a cause, engaged in struggle, involved in the lives of others.

As a senior at Princeton University in 1989, Kopp envisioned a national teacher corps that would recruit bright liberal arts students to teach in rural and inner-city schools with teacher shortages. Visions are not unusual among idealistic college students, but Kopp turned hers into a crusade. She established Teach For America and raised several million dollars from foundations and corporations to recruit, train, and place 500 new college graduates in public school classrooms last year. As you listen to their voices in the article that begins on page 16, you hear echoes of Kopp’s own commitment. Says one young woman, whose first year was far more demanding than she could have imagined: “It’s worth it when you realize you’ve tapped into someone’s life—and they’ve tapped into yours.”

Paley, whose story begins on page 46, has been tapping into the lives of kindergarteners for many years. She has learned enough from her pupils to write six critically acclaimed books and to win the coveted MacArthur “genius” award that comes with a $355,000 stipend. Like Kopp, Paley is also committed to a cause. But hers is a quest for understanding—of herself, her students, and the world around her. She exemplifies the teacher as learner, trying to figure out what makes children tick by listening to their dialogue, their fantasies, and their fears. Late in her long teaching career, she continues to question her theories about teaching and children, to embrace new ideas, and seek to new learning opportunities. It is a process of self-discovery that she describes as a “wonderful adventure inward.”

Commitment often implies sacrifice and selflessness. And that is certainly true of the principal and teachers of St. Bonaventura School (page 34). For its 100 or so minority students, half of whom are nonCatholic, the school is an “island of hope in a sea of despair.” But shrinking enrollments and diminishing resources are making it an ever smaller island. Still, St. Bonaventura’s poorly paid, overworked teachers carry on with energy and enthusiasm, determined to make the school the best that it can be. Principal Vada Wiggins captures the poignancy of their situation: “Every morning, when I open my eyes, I know it’s borrowed time. What’s important is to do what you can with the time you have now.”

Finally, there are the Japanese teachers described in the excerpt from Bruce Feiler’s just-published book, Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School (page 54). They struggle in a rigid, hierarchical system where the pressure on students to succeed is inhumanly intense. Much of that pressure, ironically, comes from mothers—specifically the Kyōiku Mama, “The Education Mother.” The most beloved of the Japanese teachers are those who fill the gap left by the education mothers and take responsibility for the personal development of their students. These warm-hearted teachers, known as Nekketsu Sensei (“Hot-Blooded Teachers”) not only teach their subject but also go beyond the call of duty to attend to the human needs of their students. As one Nekketsu Sensei said after retrieving a truant student: “If I don’t get him now, who will? If I don’t help him today, who can?”

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote, “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” Sometime later, in one of those interesting literary echoes, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” For Paley, Kopp, and the teachers at St. Bonaventura and Sano Junior High, passion and enthusiasm are just another way of saying commitment.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as A Matter Of Commitment