Archive for the ‘Teachers’ Category

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. She often talks  about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. In this current piece she writes about saying good-bye to a group of young guys (many of whom have spent their lives in and out of institutions)  when  her Life Skills class is closed due to loss of funding.  Gayle communicates so well the deep and powerful relationships that can develop between students and teachers, relationships that stay in both their hearts for a long time. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” where she writes about variety of topics with her usual honesty and humor.

When Young Offenders–and Their Teacher–Say Good-bye

Last month, due to a lack of funding, the juvenile lock-up where I taught a weekly “life skills” workshop was shuttered.  According to my very rough calculation, in the year that I worked there I had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week, and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.

The kids I worked with in lock-up have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to become pilots and work with horses.  They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words, say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards their own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system and that soon enough, when they are old enough to be tried as adults, they will just continue on to become “career criminals.”

The bottom line is that I will most likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.

I will miss Emmanuel who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  His pudgy face with his dimples and mile-wide smile is wallpapered on the inside of my brain.  At 16, he was the youngest student I taught and without question, the most articulate.  Before the program closed a staff member told me that he was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back.  Not one.

I will miss the most hardened young man, Josh, the one who looked at me suspiciously when he first met me but was the first to thank me for everything I had done for him when I saw him for the last time.  During our first group together he told me that he smashed his phone on the ground when it froze in the middle of a game he was playing.  By the end of that first hour together, I made him laugh at the absurdity of the act.  I never knew, until the program had closed, that he is a heroin addict that drives him to have a needle in each arm at the same time.

I will miss the young man with the first name of a classic literary character, a boarding school student from a very affluent neighborhood.  We talked about books and movies.  His alcoholism has destroyed his life.

I will miss seeing Ricardo, a light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, sprawled on a chair all smiles and light.  I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and his gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges.  I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed.  I know that he is terrified of going back there.  He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away. When an informal conversation occurred in class about superheroes and that inevitable question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” He said, “I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud.  I want to bring happiness to the streets.  I want to protect my little sister.  I’d want to be a superhero.   I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”

At the end of my last group I gave each boy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which is a lot less hokey than it sounds.  We had ended each group up until then with each kid reading five sound bytes of advice.  They understood what that final gesture meant, that I’d be with them wherever they landed, that I was dedicated to their success.  I wasn’t allowed to hug them when I said goodbye, but my handshakes were long and warm, and my tears told them that I would never, ever forget them.

“Good night you princes of Maine,
you kings of New England.”

John Irving, Cider House Rules

He was a big man, a presence to be reckoned with on any football team. Dressed in a pressed shirt and colorful tie, he spread his arms out and gestured around the room. “I’m a new teacher here. How do I do this?” he asked.

I knew what “this” was—a room with only a few windows, thick-paned and laced with heavy gauge wire, designed to keep what’s in, in; a locked industrial metal door; the squawk of walkie-talkies in the hallways. It was a classroom much like the one in the county jail where I taught high school students for ten years. But this classroom was in the Judge Connelly Center Education Program in the Greater Boston area, a residential adolescent treatment program for adjudicated young offenders, kids who had been in and out of the child welfare and justice systems, some for much of their young lives. I was there to talk with teachers and support staff about my own experiences working in incarcerated education.

I could have answered by talking about curriculum and the importance of choosing materials that were culturally relevant. As an English teacher I was always looking for readings with characters and situations that the young guys I taught could identify with. I could have explained how I pushed them to go beyond cultural relevance and to begin to develop the critical skills they needed to tackle state mandated tests.

Or I could have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of Common Core, the limitations and short sightedness of “teaching to the test,” or the damage that so many of our current educational reforms were doing to at-risk students.

But I sensed that that wasn’t what he was asking. He was going for something more important, more basic. He was posing the question that daily confronts every teacher who works with hard to reach students.  “How do I not give up, not lose faith in what I’m doing? How do I do this?”

His question stopped me in my tracks. And in that pause I knew the only answer I could give him.

“Don’t take it personally.”

Too simple for that very complex organism, the classroom? Perhaps, but it’s what has kept me teaching at-risk kids for over 25 years.

As any teacher knows, a classroom is a crowded place. It is not only made up of individual students, but each in turn brings with her or him a host of others—family members, care providers, neighbors, friends and enemies, even the family pet along with the heroes and villains, real and imagined, that make up the world of social media and pop culture surrounding  the student. All are factors in learning, all are contributors to that day’s lesson, all are influences, good or bad, on a learner’s success—and in turn, on a teacher’s success. Teachers recognize these factors. Most education pundits don’t.

Too often the influences that shape at-risk kids’ lives are negative, and consequently can shape teacher-student interactions negatively if we let them. In my own experience teaching in both a community alternative school and in a county prison, I learned to see (perhaps not as quickly as I should have) that there were multiple layers of experience between me and my students. Many of them had lived through years of neglect and abandonment by family, school, neighborhood and church. They had survived physical and sexual abuse, the loss of family and friends to AIDS, alcohol and drug addiction, gun violence, or just plain despair. Success wasn’t in their vocabulary, only anger, belligerence, mistrust, and disinterest. It’s a vocabulary that teachers, by their nature, don’t share.

Yet success with disenfranchised students comes only when we can translate that sullen, snarly, challenging indifference to us and to what we have to offer into what it is really saying: I can’t do this. I’m scared. I won’t try because I’ll only fail. I don’t believe that you care about me.

With the increased demands placed on teachers these days it is too easy to misinterpret a student’s oppositional behavior and get pulled into a confrontation, or worse yet to write him or her off as not worth the effort. The times when I’ve done that I could almost see the smug look of dark satisfaction on a kid’s face, a look that says, “Gottcha, teach! See, you’re just like all the rest.”

Certainly teachers can’t accept open disrespect or class disruption. But how many situations could have been prevented from escalating if a teacher “didn’t take it personally.” We all have our own personalities, and so our own ways of intervening in those sticky circumstances. Humor. Ignoring. A simple shift of focus. In my jailhouse classroom I sometimes was able to diffuse a potential face-off by first recognizing and then commenting to a student that he seemed to having a bad day. That simple gesture helped dampen the fuse of the power struggle I could feel myself getting pulled into.

Of course our best efforts don’t always work, but not taking it personally—including our own inevitable failures—does. This outlook on the teaching life helps us acknowledge all the forces that shape our students, our classrooms, and ourselves, and allows us the resilience to come back the next day ready to try again.

Originally appeared on Esteem Journal

 

This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class, or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.

It’s a different kind of fear. I only began to understand this fear after I started the series “Teachers in Their Own Words” that I’ve been running here on “Kids in The System.”

I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).

So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.

Over the nine months that the series ran, I learned a lot. About what it was like teaching high school on a New Mexico reservation. About the challenges of teaching young offenders either still in prison or in a release program.  The Monday after the Sandy Hook shootings, a kindergarten teacher shared the joy she felt talking and singing and having an ordinary day with her very much alive little people.  Another teacher wrote about the difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the burden that Common Core put on her and her students. I heard about the importance of community college as a stepping stone to success for new citizens, older learners and younger students making their way. One teacher told readers why she planned on spending a weekend in Washington DC for an “Occupy Education” event, while another explored the weaknesses of the Common Core curriculum and its far-reaching impact. There was the poignant “resignation letter” from a young teacher who had “had enough,” deciding to leave public education for a private school because she felt disloyal to all she believed teaching should be. And then there was the teacher who felt that the only way she could stay in education was to leave it, immersing herself in a student self-directed learning program.

In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students.  Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.

And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices.  In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.

According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

More and more I worry about young teachers new to the classroom. Will they simply be data-gatherers and test-givers? Is that how they will define their role as teacher since that seems to be the prevalent, official take on the profession these days? More importantly, will they settle for that definition? Many veteran teachers are giving up, but what about new teachers? “Why One Public School Teacher Has Had Enough” is the last article for the season in the series, “Teachers in Their Own Words.” In it Natalie, a prekindergarten teacher in a New England public school, shares her struggles to hold on to her ideals and her love for her students while trying to be a team player on a team that she’s not sure can work for the best interests of kids.” She writes, “We see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.” It’s clear that Natalie feels conflicted and somewhat inadequate to the task, but even more powerfully she feels disloyal to her basic philosophy of education, to her students and to the profession she clearly loves. It’s a clear-eyed, courageous, and poignant piece, leaving you no choice but to cheer her on and wish her well.

Why One Young Public School Teacher Has Had Enough

This season, I’ve read a number of resignation letters from teachers. There was the career teacher whose letter titled “My profession no longer exists” went viral. There was the school principal lamenting that it is “so much harder to be kind to children” these days. Or the the award-winning teacher resigning just four years before full retirement because he “can no longer cooperate with the high stakes testing regime.”  In each of these, we see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.   While reading these letters, I’ve written my own resignation letter.  It is a short and sweet note written with some embarrassment after just two years of teaching in an urban public school.  I did not participate in Teach for America and considered myself kind of a conscientious objector to that deployment, but there you have it.  Two years.

We’re dropping like flies, it seems.  Some of my friends, also young teachers in public schools, are courageously soldiering on.   In the process of applying for jobs at progressive private schools, I kept using their example to motivate me to instead stay one more year in an urban public school.  That’s what they’ve promised themselves.  They tell me they’re giving it one more year, or trying to squeeze out two more years before deciding what to do next.   I admire them tremendously, but while I have regret and disappointment that public school teaching did not work out for me at this time, I’ve accepted that it’s time to say goodbye for now.

Here’s the puzzle.  I’m a few years out of college, and my professional commitment is to democratic and progressive education.  I want to treat children with kindness and respect each day, I want to know their hopes and their families’ hopes, and I want most of my interactions with them to focus on learning—“Hmm…pet store.  How can we sound out that word?” or “Which container do you think will fit more? How do you know?” or “Why is your friend feeling sad? What could you do to help him?”  While I am able to have those kinds of interactions in the public prekindergarten where I teach, it’s usually also while holding a tissue tight around someone’s bloody nose, or wiping a table while simultaneously carrying a cot.  It’s a circus, with so many children and not enough hands, not enough space.  I’ve tried every possible daily schedule and every possible furniture arrangement and consulted any colleague who made the mistake of looking like they had a free moment, all in order to try to make it work.

Yet, even in this high-functioning public school with fantastic leadership, I’ve found it enormously difficult to provide my students with their basic entitlements.  I want to give them the sense that I like them and have time to listen to them, that their ideas matter and will work their way into what we explore as a group, and that they are known well.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this, I am expected to collect and analyze rigorous fine-grained data about student progress in all domains.  Even though we know that children develop at an uneven rate, I am expected to lead all students through linear progress. For example, a child who uses scissors to cut lines must be able to cut curves 12 weeks later.  We are told there is some wiggle room, but nonetheless these benchmarks feel like marching orders.  So we march.  I believe that my first principle must be to do no harm, and yet I feel complicit in a system that asks young children to do too much too fast.   And I’ve had to figure out how to manage all of these priorities largely on my own.

I know that it takes many years to develop one’s teaching practice, but in talking to colleagues at my school, not a single person has told me “give it time.”  I kept waiting for those words.  If the problem was me, that I was too much a novice, then the solution would be simple.  Stick it out, give it more time.  Instead the feedback from administrators has been enormously positive, and I’ve been encouraged not be so hard on myself and to just accept their assurance that I am a great teacher and there isn’t a big problem.  This administrative response came at a time when I felt myself beginning to punish students when I meant to support them, and beginning to forgo vigorous lesson planning in favor of accepting that maybe the day would just be one rush of meals, toileting, and behavior management because our large group size, staffing arrangement and cramped room made each of those things so difficult.

So next year, I’ll work at a small, progressive, private school, where I will have a full-time co-teacher, paid planning time, and weekly professional development.   There teachers get time and support to pursue collaborative projects to improve their own practice. “Basically, what we provide our students, we want to provide our faculty as well,” I was told again and again when I visited.

It is not lost on me that this wonderful place where progressive education thrives is a boutique. But I have come to a point where I refuse to feel guilty about wanting to use in my teaching what we know about child development and how kids learn best.  I refuse to feel guilty about wanting a window, a lunch break, and to know my colleagues’ names.  Teaching, wherever one does it, is enormously challenging work, and I will be much better at it there.

My friends have been tremendously supportive.  The ones who have stood with me in learning about and pursuing public education, sharing articles, debates, and reflections, have said “I have no talk back” when I told them my career move.   Some people, who are not teachers, have said things like “It’s a shame, because it’s in those schools that we need the best teachers.”  However, I’ve learned that the best teachers do not exist in isolation.  The best teachers, like the best students, are wherever there are people encouraging them to be just that.

 

 

Although teachers spend their days surrounded by people— albeit little, and younger people—it’s still an isolating job. For many of us in the classroom, the vitality and the support to do our jobs comes from colleagues. Ideas exchanged, “problem students” talked over, “try this” suggestions for lessons are what keep teachers professional, motivated and, frankly, human. In the latest contribution to the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, “The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?” which originally appeared in Education Week, Hillary Greene writes in what at first appears to be a lighthearted way about the isolation and lack of collegiality that is taking over our schools.  What is missing, she writes, is not just free, decent coffee in the staff room but the space, time and freedom to share with each other. The current standardized curriculum leaves little room for children to be creative and to learn the art of community. This limited, locked-step model holds true for teachers as well, leading people like Hillary to worry, “that I’m losing my voice.” Hillary, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, need not worry. As you’ll see, her voice is strong, courageous, and wise.

The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle school humanities in an alternative-licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

 

Anyone who spends time in a classroom knows that a school is much more than a school. Just drive around your own town past a local school and read the marquee with its announcements of meetings, activities, its words of wisdom and encouragement. Schools are more than academics and tests. Perhaps this diversity of purpose is most apparent in community colleges. Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” demonstrates what schools can, and do do, for their students, our communities, and ultimately, our country. Elisabeth has been teaching Sociology at the community college level in Western Massachusetts for over a decade, drawing on her academic credentials as well as her social work experience. Many of her students are older, many are struggling to define a new and better life, many are from different cultural backgrounds. Sounds perfect for a Sociology class!! Although Elisabeth, with a touch of academic alchemy, puts that diversity to good use it is the students, she writes, “with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.” “Community College—When a School is More Than a School” will give you some much needed hope at a time like ours when hope and tolerance are in such short supply.

Community College–When a School is More Than a School

On the first day of a new semester when I enter my Sociology classroom in the community college where I teach, voices quiet and faces turn, reflecting emotions that range from excitement to boredom, caution to enthusiasm, by turns welcoming and wary. We momentarily assess each other, wondering silently, “What will I learn this semester?” I usually push through this initial silence by offering a joke about the registrar’s list.

With that list in hand, I am faced with my own Anglicization of names, revealing a cultural bias and a real failure in language pronunciation. Within our classroom are names reflecting our country’s richness—Russian, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Irish, African (Burundi), Ukrainian, Mexican, Indian, Jordanian, West Indian, Jewish and Greek ancestry. We discuss how a last name only provides a glimpse into a journey and may not accurately reflect one’s cultural heritage. As I slowly call out their names—Egor, Idaliz, Hafiz, Huyen, Jose, Jamari, Chris, Britney, Thandi—they acknowledge that they are “present”, even as I, for lack of a better word, “mangle” their names. Some students will gently redirect me to the correct pronunciation.

Slowly the “us/them” paradigm is replaced by “me/we”, and it serves as the foundation on which we build our collective experience as it unfurls over 16 weeks. While I take personal responsibility for cultivating a climate of open communication and inquiry within the classroom, it is these students, with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.

Together we explore what Sociology is. “Look around,” I encourage them. “All of you are Sociology.” What do we have in common? How are we different? And how do these differences influence not only our educational experiences but the road we walk on?

Sociology is the story of a 53 year old construction worker, weathered from decades of outdoor work, returning to college to study nursing. It is the 20 year old hearing-impaired woman who aims for a sense of normalcy and inclusion. It is reflected in the eyes of an African refugee who speaks three languages and whose goal is to become a medical doctor. Sociology is in the shuffling feet of a sweet-faced teenager who opted to finish high school by taking community college classes rather than struggle through an uninspired rural high school milieu. It is the story of a 38 year old father of three who requires further training to avoid discharge from the job he’s held for nearly 20 years. Sociology is also reflected in the eyes of a 26 year old former felon, in recovery from substance abuse, sitting close to the door, unsmiling, unsure of his place. It is found in the story of a high school drop-out, struggling through the blight of urban decay and poverty, looking to escape the family “business” of drug-dealing and larceny by matriculating into community college. She will be the first in her family to not only graduate from high school but the first to attend college.

Through our discussions, students are able to hear different perspectives on human society. And as the weeks progress, many of their initial stereotypes and prejudices dissolve, and they are able to realize that xenophobia is a choice, a learned response.

And this leads to asking some profound questions of ourselves and others: What do we share? How are we the same? How do we differ? How do we, as individuals, cope with all of these cultural differences? How do we understand, respect and celebrate the differences between others? If “celebrate” is too lofty a goal, or an unwanted one, can we as a class aim to develop tolerance? We start to move closer to this goal by bridging the differences within our classroom, which is a microcosm of the larger society. This bridge is built through the development of shared classroom norms, through the curriculum, by cultivating a “first- name” basis within the classroom and by recognizing that learning is done in multiple ways.

Students do not typically start off embracing the value of tolerance, but it is rare that they, as a collective, do not end up working together to create a climate of cooperation versus divisiveness, of inclusion versus separation, of looking for the familiar in the perceived strange, which of course lies at the heart of Sociology. And, to a certain extent, this is the very mission of community college: that all individuals, regardless of their aptitudes, demographics and personal histories, have the capacity to learn, to grow and to contribute positively to their communities.

When I was recently asked if I thought teachers today needed to be activists I didn’t hesitate in my answer. “Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist.”

That might come as a surprise to those teachers who have never wrote a letter to the editor, marched in a rally, retweeted a Diane Ravitch tweet, or “Occupied” anything but their classrooms. But I’m holding to my belief, as firmly as some teachers hold their protests signs declaring things like, “Let Teachers Teach” and “Protect Our Students”: being an activist is an essential part of being a teacher.

For most teachers activism is an everyday thing because students and their needs are every day. There’s a lot to watch out for in a classroom—even on good days they are a moil of energy—aside from whether a lesson is hitting home. A student who can’t read the board because her family can’t afford glasses. A cough that doesn’t go away. A young boy who refuses to go to rec. because he gets picked on. A nasty bruise on the arm of the girl who doesn’t meet your eye. The immigrant student struggling with a new culture and a new language. The issues are real—poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and nutrition, bullying, depression, low self-esteem—and they are all a part of an average school day.

Good teachers don’t complain, they just act, doing what needs doing to help their students learn. It may be a home visit, a talk with a school counselor, an offer to tutor after school, a walk around the playground at lunchtime, or a spare change collection in the teachers’ room for eyeglasses. Some teachers (and it’s a growing number) feel the need to address these concerns in a broader context, “taking to the streets” to confront such issues as health care, drugs, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, immigration, the current educational policy itself. But whatever teachers do, they take action, becoming activists for their students.

It wasn’t any different for me, teaching teens incarcerated in an adult prison. It was just as important that I be aware of the health and safety of my locked up students as it was that I have appropriate materials and a clear goal for the day’s lessons because, as every teacher knows (but few policymakers),  students’ living conditions have a profound impact on their school success. For me that meant paying attention to who came to class with a cut forehead or bruised cheek, who hadn’t showered for a few days, who acted frightened or paranoid, or who didn’t show up at all. Locked up kids have few to no advocates. My role as their teacher required that I be that advocate and take action where and when I could. Many times that action meant carefully, diplomatically negotiating the volatile power structure that makes up prison culture. But how could I do otherwise? How could any teacher do otherwise?

There is another aspect of teacher activism, however, that is even more profound, and that teachers can’t sidestep no matter where they stand on the activism spectrum: Students learn how to act by observing how we act in the everyday world.

It was something that my jailhouse students made me conscious of. Prison has lots of rules. Some rules make sense; others make no sense at all. Even though they knew it was against the rules my students would ask me to do things like sneak in some candy or to let them take colored markers back to the block.  Pretty innocent things, but I refused. “Why not? It’s no big deal,” they’d complain. “Nobody will find out.”  I knew they weren’t interested in my sermon on honesty and integrity. That was okay, though. My words were beside the point. What was the point was that I would not break the rules. I acted in a way that they didn’t like but that they knew was right. The same lessons go on whatever the school setting. Students learn how to act by simply watching how their teachers act, whether it’s following rules, treating others with respect, or just showing up day after day and doing their job.

Unfortunately today’s education reformers not teachers are the ones who are defining—and limiting—what it means to be a teacher, and there’s not much about activism in their definition.  According to these pundits, a teacher’s job comes down to one thing: Get kids to pass the mandated tests. It is a shortsighted definition that is harmful not only to students but also to the teaching profession itself. But any teacher will tell you that we are much more than test-preparers. To be a teacher is to be an activist in ways that are familiar and unfamiliar, that are comfortable and uncomfortable, and that are mundane and at times, as we have seen throughout our history, heroic.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post