A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of delivering commencement addresses to the graduates of the Read Middle School and the Metropolitan Business Academy Magnet High School in Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut respectively. The student speakers at both schools thanked their principals and teachers for helping prepare them for the next chapters in their lives — chapters, of course, yet to be written. Their remarks, nonetheless, were far from perfunctory as evidenced by the heartwarming displays of affection students from both schools showed for their teachers. It is a safe bet that all they imagine regarding the significance of the connections they made will prove not only true but also richly rewarding in the future. They only have to look around to see why.
There are abundant examples of the many ways in which teachers change lives. During his acceptance speech for the Tony Awards top honor, Best Musical of 2015, producer Joey Parnes, for example, made it a point to thank “two of my many teachers” as well as “two of my newest teachers” emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning. During the same ceremony, actor Neil Patrick Harris likewise acknowledged his former “teachers in small town New Mexico.” He explained, “When sports were the only option, you showed creativity has a place in the world.” These are wonderful and much needed nods to the importance of and need for continued support of music and arts education. They also illustrate the deep, if not always-obvious ways, teachers can inspire greatness through a challenging assignment, a stimulating discussion, a few well-timed words of encouragement, the unbridled enthusiasm of a librarian, some constructive feedback on a piece of music or art, a successful entry at the science fair or the special attention of a club leader or coach. It is an aspect of the art of teaching that long-term educators cherish.
Given the continued attacks on the teaching profession from so-called corporate education reformers, these displays of gratitude and emotion are especially welcome as they powerfully reaffirm the quintessence of teaching as a humanistic enterprise.
Beyond the artificial scales of progress measured by high stakes testing, teaching at its core is about building relationships. It is one of the reasons that I believe if Mitch Albom’s bestselling book The Five People You Meet in Heaven was not simply a work of fiction, one or more of the five persons you meet in Heaven would most certainly be teachers.
Albom’s popular book, of course, begins with an extraordinary act of kindness and self-sacrifice with the main character giving up his life to save another. Albom, however, paints a portrait of Heaven, not as a place but a process. Consistent with this premise the main character’s voyage into the afterlife begins with a quest to understand his life’s true meaning. Over the course of this journey, he comes to appreciate how all life is intricately and beautifully interwoven — how one tiny ripple or encounter can have enormous consequences.
This is true of teachers and the immense responsibility they shoulder in guiding the hopes and dreams of the nation’s youth. Perhaps more than others, they understand the interconnectedness that Albom aims to highlight — especially in the present climate when so many of the foundations of our educational system are in real peril from corporate education reform and high stakes testing.
Those bent on destroying these foundations, would do well to heed the wisdom of Albom’s narrative voice. There are no random acts. Tinkering with those bodies and traditions that connect us is a risky enterprise. One of the institutions that still powerfully unites Americans are our schools. It would be magnificent if the “common core” they sought to promote focused less on artificial standards and test scores and more on establishing a deep appreciation for our shared humanity.
Teachers, of course, can lead the way, not toward some false utopia embodied in the privatizing, anti-union, agenda of the testing moguls but in education’s humanistic roots — providing young people with multiple pathways to success through a wide variety of educational, artistic and athletic experiences.
“People think of Heaven as a paradise garden, a place where they can float on clouds and laze in rivers and mountains,” Albom writes. “But scenery without solace is meaningless.” People who believe that hastily prepared teachers and high stakes testing can yield the promised land of educational achievement should recall that form without substance is equally meaningless. We cannot afford to settle for the façade of excellence without fully investing in tackling all of the problems that beset our nation’s youth.
There can be no discussion of great schools in the abstract without improving strategies to address poverty and inequality, as well as building cultural competencies that emphasize our pluralistic strengths not undermine them. This, by definition, must include support for music and the arts, athletics and afterschool programs that help to build communities and promote democratic practice. This can never be accomplished without the cultivation of a diverse pool of well trained, properly supported teachers — true professionals forged in our nation’s graduate education schools and imbued with a sense of instruction that emphasizes care for the whole person not merely the cultivation of test scores.
No matter how loudly self-interested billionaires and sly politicians try to deny it, great schools begin with great teachers, collaborating with enlightened administrators and communities to serve the needs of the next generation.
In this sense, the five teachers that you meet in Heaven will likely be the same dedicated professionals currently working in an environment in which they are understaffed, underfunded and often grossly underappreciated, but still relentlessly sacrificing in the hopes that the tiny ripples they create can shape a life and perhaps, a better future.
Follow Yohuru Williams on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yohuruwilliams