For the last couple years, since I stepped away from classroom teaching and began researching education for the Academy for the Love of Learning, I’ve found little to applaud about schooling in the Western world. My research led me to brilliant learning theories and inspired education models, but whenever I turned my attention to the pendulum policies and outdated practices of our nation’s public school system, I got a bit despondent. Why couldn’t we stop tinkering with standards and structures, and allow teachers and children—even principals and superintendents—to meet each other as human beings, and engage, naturally, in learning?
Then, just last week, I found new hope while sitting in on the Academy’s annual three-day “Teacher Renewal Summer Institute,” offered to Santa Fe Public Schools teachers with the generous support of the district. As a teacher, I never liked professional development workshops, generally given by chipper consultants who had not been up ’til 2 am grading essays the night before. But I’d been in on the planning for this workshop, and was intrigued to learn the Academy facilitators were not going to focus on what teachers do, but rather who they are.
More than 20 teachers showed up for the Institute—some of them giddy at having finished a wonderful year; others anxious about shifting policies and new requirements. One teacher said she was afraid to open her email anymore, as it seemed every message brought yet another responsibility. Another, fighting back tears, said she’d endured so much criticism from the higher-ups she wasn’t sure she would return to her classroom at all.
The Academy facilitators had no answers. But they did have a question: What is your “story,” they asked, as a teacher? Is it the story you want to live?
I confess I had no idea what they meant until the next morning, when we watched a clip from the classic superteacher movie, Stand and Deliver. You may remember it: Edward James Olmos, sporting owl glasses and a comb-over, plays real-life math teacher Jaime Escalante, working tirelessly to prove the poorest, toughest kids can pass college-level calculus.
Watching the clip, I flashed back to the first time I’d seen the movie, at the age of 13. I’d been so deeply moved I gave up my plans to be a lawyer for the LA Dodgers, and began thinking about becoming a public-school teacher instead. And when I began teaching 10 years later, I did my best to be Escalante: I met with kids before and after school, called them at home, checked in with their parents. I worked late into the night, went in on weekends, skipped weddings and parties to tweak lesson plans and mark my students’ essays.
It didn’t work. Though I saw growth in many of my students, I didn’t feel it in myself. And I couldn’t understand why until the morning a non-teacher friend stopped by my classroom and observed me “getting in the face” of an inattentive student—that tough Escalante love.
“Whoa,” she said. “I’ve never seen you yell at someone before.”
That’s when it dawned on me: I wasn’t growing because I was acting more than teaching. I was trying to live a “story” that wasn’t mine.
Over the next few years, I began to shed Escalante’s story and write my own. I began to find my own way of being a teacher—which, as it turns out, has less to do with standing and delivering, and more to do with sitting and listening.
The idea that teachers must write their own stories, even while keeping an eye on state requirements and ticking clocks, is one of the core tenets of the Academy’s program. The teachers who attended last week’s Institute had discovered this on their own, as had I, but it was inspiring to see them share how they brought their authentic selves to the classroom, how they found their own ways to connect to their students, even if it meant “forgetting” an occasional email mandate, or turning in lesson plans a few days late.
Many teachers said they left the workshop renewed, reconnected to the original passion that had called them to teach years before. The teacher who’d been on the verge of quitting announced she was heading back to her classroom the next morning, to start setting up.
I felt as hopeful as I had been in years, reassured that despite misguided mandates and Hollywood messages, the story of true teaching and learning continues to be written and lived by the teachers themselves.
A graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to explore what “school” could someday be. His research can be found at