The Kind Of Teacher That Makes Me An Optimist

Apologies for the recent quiet on the blog! It has been a hectic month of work, to say the least. But I have been working on a couple fun interviews with teachers I know.

This first one is a conversation with my wonderful friend Amal, who I met while living in NYC. She teaches writing at a charter high school in the Bronx; she is an intelligent and energized educator, and a creative, innovative, and critical thinker within the school where she works. She writes a blog called Hello Homeroom, which you should check out.


Amal in a photograph from her blog

I’m very interested in engaging with people of my generation who are working in education. I realize many of these conversations have been happening for a long time, but I think that gauging the perspective of new generations is a barometer of future trajectories.

It was fun to check in with her and to hear her vision of how education should evolve, and the challenges that stand in the way of that. I hope you enjoy the conversation:

LM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Amal. I have been thinking about charter schools recently – including a school I worked at when I was in college. Actually, I recently heard a public radio broadcast of the Board of Education review of the charter school I used to work with in San Francisco. A thirteen year old spoke in representation of the charter school, and he was one of the kindergarten students I taught, back in the day! I almost cried!

Amal: That’s so cool!

LM: I know! It made me feel so old, though… Anyway, after my last interview (which I will be posting soon), I have been thinking a lot about what motivates different people to become teachers. There are people who teach to be teachers and to work in education, and there are teachers who teach to engage with a subject they’re passionate about. Like film for my last interviewee, or art in my case.

I’m guessing you’re the kind of teacher who wanted to work in education and be a mentor. But, tell me, what brought you to teaching?

Amal: I think you’re right. I do consider myself someone who enjoys the mentoring aspect of teaching, but there is definitely the passion for the subject area, too. I love getting nerdy about words with high schoolers. It sort of hits both sides of the coin you just described – by sharing (and hopefully transmitting) my passion about the content, I become a good role model for students, too.

LM: Yeah, totally. I guess I came to a realization about my dad though this blog, though. In the interview I did with him, he described his journey of being an athlete, and then finding a teacher in college who was just such an incredible mentor and who ushered him into a passion for science and ecology… but really, my dad became a teacher to continue that kind of mentorship and human connection. Rather than becoming a biologist in the field, for example.

Of course, I think the best teachers are always a blend of those levels of engagement.

Amal: I really identify with that, actually, and that thought has been solidified more and more as my teaching career has continued. I definitely see that I have a skill set, or a personality type, or just a general interest, in things that are so teacher-y. it took me a while to figure out what I think that means, but it’s been part of my own growth to redefine that and to make it work for me.

LM: What did you like or struggle with in school as a student, and how has that informed your teaching? (Giant question, sorry!)

Amal: I always liked having some creative license in what I was doing. I was a good student, so I could definitely be told what to do and do it reasonably well, but the things I enjoyed the most were the ones where I could take some ownership of it. In some classes, that meant that I just took stupidly organized notes, and that was my way of making the content mine. Other classes had more opportunities to make things or take control of the product or process. My worst subjects were always the ones that were the least interesting to me, and I think that was usually because I didn’t perceive myself as good at them, or because they were either too easy or too challenging, or because I couldn’t see how or why I would ever need to know that.

It’s sort of the classic high schooler’s question, which is a very annoying thing to a teacher’s ears: “Why do we need to know this?!” But it’s so important! If there isn’t a decent answer to that question, then why are we doing what we’re doing?

LM: Are there times, as a teacher, when you feel like you don’t have control over your curriculum to give a good answer to that question?

Are there times when the answer is just – data collection and standardized tests!?

Amal: I’m not sure I should tell the other teachers this, but: I have the best gig in the house.

I currently teach a writing class, which is supplemental to students’ regular English class, where they cover literature, response essays, etc. I have a lot of freedom in my curriculum, and even though I stick pretty closely to the standards, I find that the stuff I teach is really relevant to being a literate human. We read content that interests us, we locate key information, we write responses, we participate in the larger dialogue around a variety of topics. I guess i’m pretty lucky. It’s very rare for me that we’re doing something simply as a cog in the larger education machine.

LM: That’s great, yeah.

Do you attribute that freedom as a teacher mostly to the charter school’s freedom?

Amal: Partially, yes, and partially because of the nature of the class itself. Since it’s supplemental to students’ mandatory English class, I get to teach what is sort of a mandatory elective. I’m not under the same direct pressures for testing and scores, and i still contribute directly to students’ learning in those areas.

LM: Ah, interesting. So it’s not elective to the students, but it’s elective to the school?

Amal: Correct. The thinking at our school is that our students tend to arrive in our school, in the 9th grade, with major deficits in reading and writing. So, in 9th and 10th grade they have an additional literacy course [each year], and in 11th grade they have a built-in SAT prep course.

LM: I feel like there’s a very prevalent discouragement with public education right now.

Amal: What do you mean by discouragement?

LM: By discouragement I mean that America seems nervous about if we’re keeping pace and doing well by our kids as the world evolves. Education is one place that people seem to feel we’re falling behind. Lots of families feel that, if you can afford private school, it’s probably better for your kids… and I’m always reading articles that say the best predictors of academic achievement are parental income and involvement.

So, we live in a time of growing income inequality, and global competitiveness… And Common Core seems to be a locking-down on standards in an attempt to provide more equality.

I guess I’m wondering how you feel about an increased emphasis on testing and standardization – will it achieve more educational equality? And what does it mean for you and your school, so far?

Amal: Gosh, that’s a huge question. I mean, there are so many ways that the policy obviously doesn’t pan out to make everyone equal. The other side of the conversation, which I think a lot about, is whether or not the skills we’ve traditionally taught in schools will continue to be the ones that matter in the future. Even in the very near future.

LM: Totally, it’s an interesting thing to see what feels like a pretty rigid curricular policy come in when we’re at such a plastic and changing global moment.

Amal: It’s really tough to think about, too. That question is loaded with thousands of other questions about inequality, choices, educational values, competition, fluidity … even as someone who is regularly considering these things, I’m not sure I have any sort of answer.

LM: Nor do I. I just have more questions the farther I go into the rabbit hole.

Amal: I hear you on that!

LM: But, I think the question of what our values are and how they’re expressed through the education system is pretty fascinating. I guess, as a homeschooler, I felt very estranged from that. I got the cultural values through pop-culure and other means, but I’m wondering now if I kind of missed a key aspect of indoctrination in our culture!

Amal: Do you really think that?

LM: I don’t know. I’m not sure if I really think that. But, often when I talk to people who went to school (adults) they will say that school was mostly not relevant to what they do now, but that they’re sure it’s necessary… There’s a deep acceptance to the system that I feel outside of.

Amal: I remember you mentioning that to me. I didn’t find out that you were homeschooled until later in our friendship, and I remember you being so delighted that it wasn’t this super-obvious thing about you.There wasn’t a big sign on your head that said, “I might not get it. I was homeschooled.”

LM: Yes! Well, you know… being homeschooled was something I had to explain a lot as a kid.

Anyway, college seems like it’s the place where people tend to feel that there was real relevance – and the key difference between K-12 and college tends to be agency. So, I guess I wonder why people feel like their lack of agency at younger ages was probably…important…? Or necessary.

Since I didn’t go through the system, I don’t assume it’s necessary to get you into adulthood and citizenship.

If you could change anything about our approach to education, what would it be?

Amal: I would give students a lot more agency, actually. It’s tough to train them to be a part of a structured system, when that’s not really the way the world works anymore. I would develop their creativity, push them to take challenges, allow them to work outside of pre-existing molds … This is tough for educators to grasp, because it’s a lot harder to control or count or measure. And it might force all of us teachers to work with each other, instead of each do his own thing, and it might be a lot more work than following a traditional curriculum.

The current system doesn’t exactly invite schools to take these risks, and teachers are often ostracized for trying. A school’s funding often depends on its success as defined by traditional methods and scores, so it’s hard to decline those things in order to try something innovative, which might not work at all.

LM: Yeah… I think it’s a scary thing for a bureaucratic system at this scale to understand, too, that diversity and personalization can ultimately lead to more equality and success.

Amal: I think innovation, risk, and creativity are at the core of what our education system needs, but I think there are a lot of obstacles in making those changes. It’s pretty hard to put the brakes on such a big system that has been carrying this same momentum since the beginning.

We’re also at a stage where a lot of these ideas are untested, and so there isn’t always enough buy-in.

LM: Yeah. I think a lot of homeschoolers would raise their hands as case studies of alternative approaches. I read recently that there are as many homeschoolers today as there are students in charter schools in the US. I don’t know if that’s really true, but it’s become a huge movement in my lifetime, even if it’s still somewhat unfamiliar and unstudied. I think there is a zeitgeist of change, but it’s being led partly through the “privilege” to opt-out.

Well, I love ending on your vision of change, actually. Do you have anything else you think is important to add to the exchange?

For posterity?

Amal: Haha, I do not! I love this project that you are doing. I think your voice is so powerful, especially as these changes take place and people aren’t sure what to believe anymore. All of these educational theories seem to be in complete opposition to one another. I guess privilege and choice are topics for another day.

LM: Right, well… I could go on and on with you! I would love to talk to you someday about your thoughts for parenting, too, and your perspective on the choices available to you as a (future) parent.

Amal: Absolutely! I’ll need to put more thought into that one!

LM: Sounds good. Thanks for sharing your time, Amal!