Killed By Kindness

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The murder of Jonathan Levin has weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of many this summer, not least of all teachers. The tragic circumstances of his death--police believe the 31-year-old teacher was shot in his New York City apartment by a former student he was trying to help--have left educators and lay people alike wondering how teachers can inspire their students without putting themselves at risk. Unfortunately, schools of education never explicitly address where and how teachers should draw the line in their attempts to motivate. At the same time, movies, television, and the press glorify the Jaime Escalantes and the LouAnne Johnsons in education--those who push themselves beyond the call of duty, often at great personal expense. Young, committed teachers like me--like Jonathan Levin--are left to fend for ourselves in figuring out how to get the Escalante-like results, the results that we so long for our students to achieve.

Individual "heroes" in the classroom cannot save at-risk children alone. It took me five years to appreciate this. Along the way, I did many of the things that Jonathan Levin apparently did. I met students outside of school, sometimes for a meal, sometimes to go to the library. I bought school supplies for those who came to class unprepared and rewards for those who excelled. On at least one occasion, a group of students stopped off with me at my apartment on the way to another destination. And once, during a student's hour of need, I met with her social workers to discuss taking her in as a foster child.

Everything I had seen or read about truly memorable teachers implied that I was doing what my profession required to succeed. Forty-five to 50-minute class periods certainly did not suffice as a means of reaching kids. Every committed teacher around me--novice and veteran alike--put in extra time with children. But not everybody did what I was doing, and I was about to collapse.

Eventually, it occurred to me that I could not stick to this formula and this pace if I wanted to stay in teaching for the long haul. I watched Stand and Deliver, the film about Jaime Escalante, a second time, not through the rose-colored lens of my first viewing but through the eyes of a toughened realist. What jumped out at me this time had escaped my notice several years earlier: Jaime Escalante's strenuous efforts brought on a massive heart attack. At around the same time, I happened to see a blurb in the newspaper on LouAnne Johnson, the author and main character of the book My Posse Don't Do Homework, which inspired the movie and television series Dangerous Minds. Johnson had left teaching and now worked as an educational consultant. My disillusionment faded only as my instinct to survive pushed it aside. I wanted to stay in teaching, and I wanted to do so in good health. The strategies that had looked so appealing and that the media had done such a good job of glorifying now connoted only exhaustion to me.

Instead of searching for heroes, I began to observe colleagues of mine who had stuck it out for decades in the classroom and were still thriving. I found in their practices a conventional wisdom that my highly touted teacher preparation program had never taught me. That wisdom reinvigorated my teaching and moved me away from the threshold of exhaustion. It also made me realize that surviving as the kind of teacher I want to be--and the kind of teacher I imagine Levin wanted to be--meant ignoring the media's definition of the quintessential educator and pushing my own wisdom beyond what schools of education offer in their curricula.

Every successful teacher I admired reached out to students beyond the limits of the classroom. Some did it through coaching, others through attending student performances and competitions. I marveled at the theater arts teacher who rehearsed with students on the Monday of a long holiday weekend to prepare for a competition. She and her husband picked the students up at school, brought them to their home, made them lunch, and then spent the day with them practicing. A mathematics teacher who has spent decades in the classroom often drives students home after school. A group of teachers recently joined with students in a Sunday walk to raise money for AIDS research.

The actions of these teachers show their concern for their students, for the students' welfare, and for their academic progress. At the same time, these more veteran teachers knew something that I did not: Out-of-school activity with students must have structure, it must have purpose, and it must have boundaries. Most of these teachers managed to give to students without revealing much about their personal lives. They built a bridge, forged a connection, but maintained a healthy professional distance at the same time. The teacher who had students over to her home did so with the help and visible presence of her husband. The day she spent with them had a clearly defined goal. She did not have them over to offer moral support or to bond with them but to prepare for a competition. The moral support and bonding came as an outgrowth of the larger educational mission of their day.

All these teachers qualify as heroes. Yet few of them worked alone. Almost as if by instinct, successful veteran teachers join together to accomplish their goals.

Last spring, a student of mine named Michael had a bad day. At lunchtime, another student hit him. After school, a young man rode up on a bike, threatened him with a gun, and robbed him. Michael did not come to school the next day; I knew that if he did not push himself to return immediately following his bad experiences, he would likely skip the remainder of the school year. I called his house, spoke to him, and got his address. Then, I found another teacher, and the two of us went to Michael's house together. It took two teachers in his living room, a telephone call back to another adult at the school, and the help of Michael's older brother to enable Michael to conquer his fear and return to school with us. I might have tried such a feat on my own as a beginning teacher a few years ago. Thanks to the wisdom that experience brings--and no thanks to teacher education programs and the media--I took a more effective path than that of individual hero.

Jonathan Levin never had the chance to reach the stage in his career at which he still could have touched the lives of students without endangering himself. Many teachers reading about his death must have shaken their heads as they recognized themselves in the early years of their careers. Experience taught them what Jonathan Levin will never have the chance to learn--and what neither he nor any other young teacher should have to learn on his or her own.

Vol. 09, Issue 01, Page 58-59

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