Tag Archives: Students

What Teachers Make

The title for this post comes from a slam poem by Taylor Mali. I haven’t watched in years but saw it as The Message when I was introduced to it in my first (second?) undergrad education class. Parts of it have rung in my ears ever since.

But I know a lot more now. And I know that what Taylor Mali missed is that teachers make choices. People make choices.

Thinking simply, teachers make the choice to teach or to educate, to validate young people or to turn them away, to take a stand or sit back and watch, to be vulnerable and human or indifferent and robotic.

They make the choice to act or avoid responsibility.

Teachers, educators for some, are people. Some do the best they can with the time and resources they have. Some spend hours upon hours doing work that isn’t theirs because it’s the right thing to do by the young people they serve. As soon as teachers neglect that education is a social contract, they’ve neglected a lot.

If you’re willing to let it, educating can be a political act. (Note the pronoun shift here.) And it is hard. It is hard to do the right thing and to do it well. It is hard to ask yourself, “What do I want young people to understand if they never step foot in a classroom again? Who do I want them to be?” It is hard to take responsibility for cultivating, encouraging, building young people into adults who are committed to making the world a better, more peaceful place.

And it is hard to think critically about what that world looks like. It’s hard to make the world a better, more peaceful place.


You, the reader, might be asking with good reason, “Don’t we all make choices? Don’t we all want to do good things? Aren’t we all responsible for our actions?” Yes, we all make choices. No, we do not all want to do good things. Yes, we are all responsible for our actions – but only some accept responsibility, own it, do something with it. But I’m not talking about everyone. Please excuse me. I’m talking about educators and people who claim to be so.

“You’re ranting,” you might say. “It’s not becoming. It’s not fun to read. Write this elsewhere.”

But I can’t. I can’t because educators make choices every day that directly impact the lives of others. I can see it because I work with them and I can only speak honestly about what I know and have experienced.

Perhaps context is appropriate.

I spent the day working on a job that isn’t mine because it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time. I’m willing to do work that I think is important because I know what’s at stake – the well-being of adults I care about and young people I have a social contract with. If that’s not a reason to give my time to something meaningful, I don’t know what is.

But I’m getting a little tired of others’ excuses. I’m getting a little tired of, “I can’t help because I’m doing this other thing.” I’m sure you are. But so am I.

And I’m not angelic or perfect or a martyr, not by a long shot. As I said above, I make choices, too, and sometimes I take the easy way out. But I have also seen the damage that my easy way has caused others and I’m willing to acknowledge that and choose differently. This is what it means to take responsibility and it’s hard. It’s hard to make choices that set me at a crossroads between wearing my educator hat and wearing my friend/colleague hats.

I made that choice today and I don’t know if I did the right thing. But I know I did what I could and I have to close this day feeling at peace with a difficult choice that has very sharp edges on all sides.


All of this makes me only human, doesn’t it? And a vulnerable one at at that. If this is what it takes to make the world a better, more peaceful place then at least I know I’ve done whatever it is that I can do.

Today.

Tomorrow is a different day.

And I’ll keep trying. I don’t always do the right thing but I try and this is my public commitment to continue doing so.


Sometimes I take a moment away from my focus on young people and ask myself the same questions, “Who are you? Who do you want to be?” I don’t always know the answer to the former but the latter is quite clear: I want to be an educator and I want to be a good person. Owning this makes sense to me.

Why publish this post? Because I’m human, too, and an agent in constructing a world. I know that I make choices. And I’m trying damn hard to make the right ones.

Educating

I tend to refer to myself as an educator rather than a teacher. Although I implicitly know the difference, a few conversations last week prompted me to articulate an explanation for the distinction.

Defining

According to Merriam-Webster, to teach means “any manner of imparting information or skill so that others may learn”. It has an Old English root meaning to show or instruct. By this definition, sometimes I teach. Sometimes I explicitly show my students how to do something. Sometimes I also instruct them in what to do when completing a task, which is also known simply as giving instructions.

But more often, I aim to educate. To educate, according to Merriam-Webster, “implies development of the mind” to which Google clarifies, “intellectual, moral, and social instruction”. The etymology of this word comes from the Latin word educere, to lead forth. From here I conclude that educating means raising good people who can live and be well.

People-building Revisited

I’ve written before about what I think of as people-building. In that post, I focused on the importance of asking young people who they want to be. I wrote about asking students why they have certain goals and I argued that understanding why can lead us to who – the type of person who does those things.

These are important conversations that educators need to have with their students.

In wanting my students to grow into good people, I try to take the time to talk with them about who they are and who they want to be. It’s a joy to ask students about their dreams and aspirations not only in terms of next year or the following year but in terms of ten years down the road (thank you to the friend who suggested this guiding question). I end up learning a lot more about them than I could have otherwise and acknowledging students as people who matter is important.

But there’s a lot of resistance. With the very real pressure of coursework and exams it can be really difficult to talk with my colleagues about the big picture. There’s a lot of resistance to taking time away from learning, as people claim, but there are clear points at which meaningful learning actually happens. What do you remember from high school? I want to ask my colleagues who roll their eyes. What did you learn in your classes?

I learned some content but I also learned how to live. And I remember the teachers who helped me grow as a person.

In high school, I learned that Doc Lo Re loved chemistry because it helped her understand the world. I learned that Miss Rabinowitz read voraciously because she found words beautiful. I learned that Mr. Khort was tough when he knew you could rise to the challenge and that Mr. Menchel kept his promise to be there in a crisis.

I remember who they taught me to be.

It is from my teachers that I learned to seek understanding of the world and my place in it. I learned to ask questions; I learned to look for and find beauty everywhere; I learned a way to hold those I love in palms of my hands; I learned the importance of actions.

I learned from the teachers who saw me as a person and wanted me to live well.

Educating

If educere means leading and educate means developing aspects of the mind, we need to spend more time thinking about what we want our students to walk away understanding. Not knowing but understanding. If a student never sets foot in a humanities (or science or literature or math) class again, what do we want them to understand about the world around them?

And then, equally importantly, how are we going to lead them there?

These are questions that teachers (note the word choice, please) don’t ask. Teachers talk a lot about what they want students to know by the end of a lesson, unit, or project, but rarely about what they want students to understand about the world they live in. Teachers rarely talk about the world at all.

If we want to educate, to lead our students forward, we need to be much more deliberate in our intentions. We need to ask why certain things matter to them and we need to ask who they want to be today, tomorrow, and ten years from now. We need to know what they love and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to know what matters to them.

Developing the mind is a lifelong process and it happens with or without thoughtful consideration.

So let’s be purposeful. We are, after all, raising young people. And we need to lead them with care so that they grow as good people who can live and be well, and who help make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Doing Difficult Work

Yesterday I had one of those moments when I was being punished for being good at my job. I was being punished (or so I felt at the time) for caring about young people and their learning. I was being punished (or so it seemed) because I cultivate purposeful, meaningful experiences and I believe it is my responsibility to make sure that students’ time is well spent.

As I continue to learn, not everyone thinks about education the same way that I do. And that can be very, very isolating.

I don’t like being told that I care too much or work too hard or that we’ll wait and see. Sometimes waiting and seeing is fine, but it’s not fine when “wait and see” means being reactive instead of proactive. It’s not fine when our inability as adults to take responsibility for difficult work puts students in positions where they cannot be successful. It’s not fine when waiting and seeing means picking up the pieces once there are enough pieces.

It might be hard to say no to student and parent whims, wants, and desires. It might be hard to implement procedures and policies. But it’s also necessary. So that we don’t have to pick up pieces.

Because students are people, not pieces, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Which is why, when asked to take on a task yesterday that is far beyond my roles at school, I did. Because someone needed to do the right thing and someone needed to make sure that a child who was hurting learned from his actions.

This is what I mean when I talk about people-building. This is what I mean when I say I want to raise good people.

We form relationships. We do work that is challenging. We do right by students.

And I say “we” because people responded when I asked for help. Students deserve to learn. And we have chosen to raise them.