Every day, for the past year, I have posted something on Facebook, or on With A Brooklyn Accent, to uplift the morale of teachers I am in touch with, in every part of this nation, who feel demoralized by the relentless pressure they feel to solve problems not of their making. Sometimes I tell stories about great teachers; sometimes I make fun of teachers’ enemies; sometimes I tell stories which reveal that that racism and poverty are so deeply rooted in our history and institutions that “school reform” will do little to uproot them.
But those words will have little meaning, to me or anyone else, unless my own teaching provides an example of what education at its best can do. School reformers like to talk about the “value added” a great teacher can provide and have developed all kinds of statistical formulas to measure it. They are not wrong about adding value, but their measurements, because they are all based on tests results, fail to encompass the contribution that great teachers make to their students.
Every time I walk into a classroom, I am trying to do for my students what the best teachers I had did for me: to capture my imagination to such a degree that what went on in that class would be etched in my memory for life. It might be a quotation; it might be a story; it might be in an essay that was assigned in course reading; it might be a glimpse of the face of a person so transfixed with passion for what they were teaching, light seemed to emanate from their face.
It could also be a comment in the margin of a paper or an exam, or in a conversation after class, which led you to think that it was in your power to accomplish things you never thought possible. Or it could be a long conversation in a cafeteria or in the teacher’s office, where you described your life and prospects in ways you had never done before, and which all made sense.
And it is these experiences, which you repeat with your own students, which give you the confidence to fight back against people who think that anyone can teach, or that the skills teachers have can be easily scripted, measured, and evaluated. To defend teaching effectively, you have to critique the motives and methods of those seeking to undermine the profession. But you also have to believe in the integrity of your own approach to teaching in order to wage that battle effectively day in day out.
That is why I approach every class session as though it were my last, determined to leave my students with an image of passion and commitment etched in their memories as powerfully as the one that my teachers were able to create for me.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (2002, Temple UP). This article originally appeared at L.A. Progressive.
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