Teaching children may be the highest way to seek God. It is, however, also the most daunting way, in the sense of the greatest responsibility. -Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature
As a new school year begins, how do we teach Black and other non-White children and youths and all those who are poor or have special needs to ensure their successful readiness for the future? How do educators and all those with primary responsibilities for preparing children for the future understand that every child is sacred and deserves fair treatment? How do we create a pedagogy that respects the unique gifts of our diverse child population and nation of many colors and faiths and become a beacon for our multiracial multicultural world?
Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, the youngest full professor at The Ohio State University and Director of its Center for Higher Education, reminds teachers they must begin by making sure all children know they belong and are valued. He explained: “All of us as educators are about trying to inspire students to reach their highest potential to be innovative, to be creative, to move outside the borders, to imagine and connect the dots that aren’t even connected yet. They can’t get there without first satisfying dysfunction around belonging. That’s how central and important it is. How do you start to build it? . . . The first thing you can start to do is accept students for who they are. Short, tall, skinny, thick, real hair, fake hair. Clean clothes or dirty clothes. Smell like you and don’t smell like you. We have to, first of all, love them, embrace them; that is, we accept them — because they can’t possibly be free in a place that starts to treat them as different, as outcasts, as outsiders.”
Dr.Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University points out that many teachers didn’t have all the right role models in school themselves: “There’s so many educators who feel like they’re doing the right thing and doing the right work for the right reasons, but they have not yet done the deep internal work of healing from the trauma of their own experiences in schools. What happens is when you go into a school and you have a tough day, guess who you become? The teacher who did violence on you.” He encourages young teachers today to take the time to think about what might have been broken in their own school experience — and embrace the opportunity to reimagine what they want school to feel like for their students.
Drs. Emdin and Strayhorn discussed these crucial thorny issues during this year’s Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® training dedicated to stopping summer learning loss, creating a love of reading, and empowering children to make a difference in their schools and communities. Dr. Emdin, the author of the bestseller For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too and Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, has spent much of his career focused on how to make science and math education engaging and relevant, and how to appreciate the cultural backgrounds and community traditions students bring to the table. Dr. Strayhorn has conducted extensive research on belonging. And while CDF Freedom Schools primarily serve poor children and those of color left behind, many of the ideas these two brilliant educators share ultimately transcend color and income to get at the root of the work all educators and others who work with children need to do to help all children succeed and fall in love with learning.
Dr. Strayhorn shared a personal story. He had always excelled at math until his senior year in high school, when a teacher’s ugly comment on an exam changed everything: “Miss Pitts gave me my test back, and I had made a mistake . . . She circled it and said ‘stupid move.’ A teacher called me ‘stupid’ in twelfth grade. I went home and told my mother. Long story short, before you know it — my grades started slipping in math. Before you know it — I had always planned to go to [the University of Virginia] to major in math; I went to UVA and majored in music and religious studies. But it wasn’t until I got in my doctoral program in a stats class years later that I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I like math.’ And then I said, ‘Well, wait a second. I always liked math. When did I stop liking math?’ It was when Miss Pitts told me I was dumb at math.” He warns that words really matter.
He reminded our young teachers and college servant leaders that teaching is a calling: “Carter G. Woodson once wrote that the mere imparting of information is not education. So if you’re going to be about the business of teaching, you are an educator, and how you prepare for that moment is to realize that what you’re about to do is in fact more than impartation of information. It is actually a calling. It is a vocation … there are young people in this country who need you . . . Every single day, you’ve got to wake up to that call, and you’ve got to be present in the moment about that call.”
Dr. Emdin stressed that one of the highest parts of that calling is to create joy — for both children and teachers: “You know, for me, it’s about whatever it is that you can create in a classroom to allow joy to be present . . . I always tell classes this too: I do hip-hop, hip-hop science, hip-hop STEM not for my students, but for me, because I needed to heal and bring back up who I wanted to be.” He added: “It’s a battle for you to keep your spirit alive every day . . . and once you do that, they will learn, because joy is the key to learning.” He emphasized that too often students are penalized for their behavior in settings that “are killing the joy before it can happen”: “We blame them for not being able to actively engage because of the structure of the classroom, when in reality, we are doing the violence on them . . . Joy first. Anything else second. That’s the work.”
These are messages many thousands of excellent teachers around the country already carry in their hearts and implement in their actions every day. Let’s celebrate and encourage all of them as they start a new school year prepared to recognize and nurture the best in every child, appreciate the gifts each one brings to the classroom, and cultivate the joy and love for learning that so many of our students desperately need. And let us say to those who see teaching as just a job and who do not love and respect every child and aren’t committed to ensuring their success to please go do something else.
You can have the best curriculum in the world and as many degrees as you can pay for from the best schools but the foundation for building strong children is respecting and remembering the specialness of every individual child. Educating each of our children is a sacred trust and a noble undertaking. I am so grateful to all those who go into school buildings across our nation every day to build strong educated citizens to ensure the competitiveness and security of our nation.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind.