The Great Communal Experience

One Big School?Education is the great communal experience. We go to school (in the US) 180 days a year, for 13 years of our life, and many of us continue along the educational path much longer. We can discuss similar teachers, extra-curricular activities, lunch-room antics, multiplication tables, algebra troubles and books. Education, as an American communal experience, is meant in one part to build our national pride, and also to also fuel the American dream. We go to school and are taught to expect the best of ourselves, of our families, and our communities. Every child can walk into a school at five years old and come out believing he/she can accomplish anything. This, we say, is what education is all about: It is the bridge between social classes. It eliminates racial misconceptions. It conquers over prejudice and bias. It allows anyone, anywhere, to be anything they want to be.

Or so I thought.

As a prospective teacher I had all these grandiose feelings of education wrapped up inside of me. After failing to pick a major during my first two years of undergrad, I suddenly had an epiphany: I enjoyed reading. I loved writing. I valued the deeper meaning and critical aspects of literature. I had amazing experiences working with children and teens. I wanted to be an educator.

My Calling to Be in Education

This calling to “make a difference” had been ingrained into me from a variety of life experiences. I grew up in a small suburban town in Pennsylvania. I stayed in the suburban district K-12 and graduated with thirty-six of my closest friends and peers. For as much as my educational experience was sheltered and confined, my summers were spent visiting other cultures and nations, taking in the diverse political, social, and religious constructs that make each of them so unique. When I was fourteen I went on my first of three trips to London to help run kids camps at an after-school community center. I was stationed in Southall, the heavily Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu section of London, and was fascinated by the way such distinct communities of people could live in such close quarters. At seventeen I worked with Food for the Hungry in Guatemala. My group built a community center, again held a kids camp, and felt the simultaneous awe and fear of sitting side-by-side complete strangers during an earthquake. The experience helped me realize how emotions and reactions are a universal phenomenon. I spent two summers in South Africa and Swaziland, volunteering at an AIDS clinic, running kids camps, preparing a community structure to be used for a medical clinic, church, school, and food shelter. I met thirteen year-olds who walked ten miles to school everyday, only to walk ten miles back at night to take care of their younger siblings. I saw education as a bridge out of this poverty, but the reality of the situation didn’t allow the children there to even know the bridge existed.

Many children and teens in Africa, and all across the world in developing nations, don’t know what it is like to have the opportunity to be anything they choose to be. Similarly, many children and teens in America don’t know what it is like to not have this opportunity. Many people might disagree with the broad generalization laid out in the two former sentences, but it is the present overwhelming reality. Yes, there are communities and schools in America that do such a horrible job at fostering hope, that the children and teens don’t have this belief. And yes, there are developing nations changing the fate of their children with education. However, these are the exceptions, not the norm.

The American Dream?

As a high school English teacher, I engaged with some of the most impressively bright and talented young people on a daily basis. Many of these skilled individuals will go on to college and be whatever they choose to be, and become successful American stories. But some of these bright and talented young people will, for a variety of reasons, become disengaged from school. Instead of seizing the American dream and using education to go anywhere, be anyone, do anything – they will take it for granted, which in my opinion is worse than never having it at all.

I received my MS in “Global and International Education” for two reasons: First, I still believe education is the bridge out of the poverty trap, and the remaining hope for millions of children around the world. There is no greater resource to bring education to these children than the youth of America. When inspired, they have the power to change what is long overdue. I’m reminded of the work “Invisible Children” has done, and the countless other organizations and institutions that are fueled by the youth of this country.

Second, as the term “globalization” becomes more and more of a reality, I want to be part of the movement to make primary and secondary students interact and learn with their peers around the world. I relished the opportunity to take online courses with international classmates, and know the significance of our collaboration. The same type of cross-cultural learning can and should take place at the primary and secondary levels. It is happening right now in global projects such as “The Flat Classroom Project”, “Digiteen”, “Net Gen Ed”, and “Eracism”. These global projects -created by co-founder Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis – are shaping the way we will think about education in the future.

Taking the Experience Farther

If education, as I stated above, is ever going to be the great communal experience, it needs to reach further than ever before. The purpose of education is often debated but I tend to agree with a quote from Bill Beattie:

“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.”

My education has led me to think many of us are in a position to give hope. This does not mean telling people how to live, or what to do, only “enabling them to think for themselves”. I’m eager to make a difference, and that is why I’m here. When you think of what being a great teacher is all about there is another quote I like to reference by William Arthur Ward:

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

How can we push every teacher to be a great teacher? The answer is relatively simple: We must make sure the training to be an educator is less focused on content (which the teacher should already be invested in) and more focused on demonstration and inspiration. Think of the teachers in your life that you remember – they probably all had an impact on your life and inspired you in some way. Do you think they learned to inspire students in their college courses? No. I would bet money they did not.

So the question we have to ask – if we are to be in education for the right reasons, and if we are to be great educators – is how can we inspire each and every day?

Many in America make education like fast food. Everything is standardized, as if children are standard! To be a great teacher we first must understand WHY we chose to teach. To be a great teacher we must then INSPIRE our students to find what THEY are good at. What type of teacher are you?

P.S. I would love to meet you on Twitter!

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  • […] When I was in South Africa I met a group of young people who all had a dream: Five guys a bit younger than my age (21 at the time) who wanted to get out of the township of Tembisa. They knew there was only one way out, the opportunity of education. As a prospective teacher at that time, this was not only inspirational, but also a reality check that my education was taken for granted. Since then, three of these guys have gone on to graduate from university, and even though one of them did not make it to MIT (his dream) he is a successful engineer giving back to his community. […]

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