When I reached my 27th year of teaching, coaching, and working in the field of education, I had an epiphany: I realized that if my work was going to continue, it would have to be devoted more to the child and less to the lesser tasks that crowd a school day. At the age of 54, I discovered Maria Montessori’s work. The tenet that drew me to it was Montessori’s undiluted respect for the child, something that my own traditional education, and my first 2 ½ decades as a professional, had made it almost impossible for me to fully grasp and capture in my work.
Now in my 35th year as an educator, I understand how my colleagues and I periodically lose sight of why we are in the business. A concept so simple—advocating for students—provides an axiom we can all recite by heart. But how many times do we let schedules, policies, budgets, our own lives, parents, or politics get in the way of what should be our bottom line: devotion to students? Unlike the medical profession’s Hippocratic oath of “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone,” an educator’s work ethic must go beyond “never do harm.” It has to encompass supporting the student, doing what is necessary to care for that student, providing an environment for the student to learn and thrive, listening to him or her when all patience has vanished, and displaying infinite stores of empathy even when tested beyond reason.
Much of my perspective grew out of reading and listening to the best our profession has to offer: Temple Grandin (The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s), Edward M. Hallowell (Driven to Distraction), Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes), Jonathan Kozol (Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation), Richard Lavoie (How Difficult Can This Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop ~ Understanding Learning Disabilities: Discussion Leader’s Guide), Mel Levine (A Mind at a Time), Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia), Priscilla L. Vail (Smart Kids With School Problems), and others who provide a healthy dose of perspective.
These thinkers are true advocates for students, especially for those who struggle in life. Whether plagued by attention deficit disorder, a disadvantaged socioeconomic life, a physical or learning disability, a broken home, discrimination, or other social challenges, such children are always supported by the work of these writer/practitioners. Through their insight, we who work in education can be immersed in the real life of our students and gain a perspective from their world, something so elusive and yet so important to our work.
The challenge is that it is not always easy to support the student. Things get in the way. Educators are tested every day. A teacher ready to leave home for school finds her own 5-year-old vomiting in the bathroom, and yet she has 12 parent conferences lined up for that day. Another teacher keeps thinking about his recent annual evaluation that so obviously lacked any appreciation for his devotion to the school. A third fields a call from her sister, saying that their elderly mother’s dementia has worsened and she is wandering the neighborhood. A fourth discovers at breakfast that his wife is taking the kids to her parents and wants a divorce.
The usual stressors of life are particularly keen for educators, who may have to attend to four classes of middle school students with no break, or prepare for a three-day overnight class field trip with no help, or mediate a parent-teacher conference on behalf of a student, or tend to a child who has been bullied, or support a family coping with teenage suicide. Do such personal life challenges affect job performance? How could they not?
Consider also the life events that can debilitate students: learning that a parent must deploy to Iraq; finding that mom and dad will be living apart for a while; repeatedly experiencing abuse from a father or mother; having a brother who uses drugs and brings home violent friends; or being afraid to go to school because of dangerous streets or classmates’ bullying. The personal baggage students may carry into schools are weight enough without the pressures of college exploration, standardized tests, learning disabilities, or the hurtle of navigating a particularly difficult peer group.
Periodic injections of perspective help us in our work with young people. The authors above have given me constant nourishment throughout my career. I’ve had the good fortune not only of reading their books, but also of hearing them speak. Their passion provides a much-needed jolt of the realities we may lose sight of at some point in our careers. Their relentless advocacy for the child always helps me focus on what my job is all about.
I have always believed that the best way to deepen and refresh our work with students is through ongoing, effective professional development. In its most basic form, professional development involves the reading of books that provide knowledge, insight, comfort, and reassurance. Today, with the Internet, online workshops, and video presentations, other sources of information and inspiration are also readily available. Expensive conferences, workshops, and graduate coursework may get cut from school budgets, but other intellectual nourishment, especially through reading, will always be available, as long as we are willing to walk to the table and eat.
But the question remains: How do we advocate for the needs of the child, whether a 3-year-old, a 10-year-old, or an 18-year-old? In “Their Beautiful Minds,” published this year in the Parents League of New York Review, the psychiatrist and author Edward M. Hallowell gives us a vital clue: "[I]t is time to reject the model that emphasizes what’s wrong, disabled, disordered, and diseased,” he writes, “and replace it with a model that emphasizes what’s right, what’s good, what’s strong.”
This is the perspective all of us—teachers, administrators, parents, and concerned adults—need to keep front and center in advocating for the children in our care.
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week