Saturday, August 11, 2012

America's Finest Are Coming: Teaching in The Age of Inspiration

A teacher in the making.
When I was in college trying to figure out what I would do with my life, I knew that my "fall back" job could be as a teacher. It really didn't matter what level of teaching -- to me being a professor at a prestigious university was the same as teaching social studies to 7th graders or running a 1st grade class at a suburban or urban school. Teaching was an honorable profession with decent pay and usually quality benefits. But to me it was also removed from reality. I grew up in an academic household. To me, teachers talked about the world and educated about it, but they didn't actively participate.

In the end, I became an environmental planner and activist. I put my social science education and math abilities to use as a consultant specializing in energy conservation, technology efficiency, and recycling. I had a marvelous and exciting 30-year career working with the public and private sector trying to make our energy and solid waste infrastructures more effective and safe. I'm a novelist and freelance writer now (something not so different than being a teacher). But that's not what I'm writing about here. 

I just looked at my FaceBook wall this morning and found an invitation to donate funding to help a 2nd grade teacher buy Kangaroo Pouch organizers for his students. This teacher is part of a new movement in education. He is 24 years old, with a newly minted masters in education from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been an adjunct teacher on and off for the past two years working with elementary schoolers in Portland, Oregon and Philadelphia. This 2nd grade class is his first full-scale appointment as a bonafide, credentialed educator. He is committed as hell to his job. Besides his education at Penn, he spent this summer training with Teach for America to prepare him for this coming school year. This teacher is my oldest son, Sam. 

Now, I am just a poorly paid author, but I donated $20 to Sam's Kangaroo Pouch project. Sam's school is the Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia. It is a public school, but it was designated as one of many schools in Philly that needed extra special support. Sam doesn't work directly for the Philadelphia School District. He is an employee of Young Scholars, a charter school non-profit contracted to help turn around Frederick Douglass Elementary. Young Scholars is one of many innovative private and nonprofit organizations working on new models for education and community development throughout the country. There are not enough organizations like Young Scholars...yet. But I think that's about to change. 

Other charter oriented education programs like KIPP and Mastery Charter are doing amazing work with inner city kids throughout the country. I don't want to debate the value of charters over public school systems, though. I think that's a ridiculous argument. The object is to adequately fund teachers and administrators to provide committed, informed, and effective education to kids everywhere in this country. There is no one system that will work. We are a nation of sub-cultures and neighborhoods that all blend in one way or another in schools more than in any other local institution. Whatever works! Right?

I don't want to debate the economics of education here either. Although it is clear that if we don't figure out how to adequately invest in our children, this nation is going to slide backwards on the world stage. We're going to see more crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, and unprepared adults in the work world. 

What I do want to point out is that the message young teachers are now getting (usually from experienced and profoundly gifted older teachers) is both exciting and dynamic. The future of this country, I believe, is positive because of this message. There is enormous excitement in the world of teaching right now. Talk isn't just about minimal standards, literacy, and basic skills, its about leadership, community development, and passionate commitment. Young teaching recruits are not taking "No" as an answer. I think this is possibly true of many teachers that we all had in the past, but today's world of astounding media technology, social networking, and communication systems provides teachers with a virtually infinite toolbox of solutions to problems (Sam's DonorChoose solution for Kangaroo Organizers is just an example). 

From child preacher to teacher, Bernie Wilson.
I'm finding evidence of the extreme dynamism of this profession everywhere I look these days. Experienced teachers, men and women of my own generation -- Boomers who have never truly chucked their aspirations for a better, more socially just world -- are passing on their wisdom and the lessons they've learned to this next generation. Take a look at the video attached to this web page on a talk by my friend Bernie Wilson that just came my way through FaceBook last week.  

The Age of Inspiration
Sometimes when I'm waiting for my computer to re-boot or while I'm making lunch, I wonder what we may one day call this next few decades here in America. We are at a major juncture in our history. The hippie generation is in the heyday of its leadership. Our collective knowledge about how easy it is to fail and to miss the mark is turning into wisdom. Bernie's words give me goosebumps.

I think I know what we should want to call this next couple decades. These next 20 years or so need to be called The Age of Inspiration. We have so many drastic problems: global warming, health care, proper investment in our communities, and development of a more sustainable economy. If we don't approach these problems as inspired, can-do citizens, we may stay mired in the past. And, quite frankly, the past didn't work. 

But we Boomers can't be the only ones saddled with doing the inspiring. The real job is for this next generation of kids. I am amazed by the young people I know who are choosing education as a path. I end this essay with a very brief video of this year's Teach for America recruits at the closing ceremony for their summer training in Philadelphia. As you read this, they have fanned out to eastern cities far and wide to begin the next phases of their lives. Some of them will stick with teaching. Some will move on to other professions. No matter what, you can bet they will be touched by their time teaching the generation coming up behind them. We are a great nation because of the inspiration of our young people. That inspiration comes from their teachers first and foremost. And so it goes. 

The speaker in this video is one of the great heroes of my life. I couldn't have become the man I did if he hadn't been born. To be touched by a teacher in the making for the past 24 years has been quite a treat. But what's more important about this video, is to listen to his peers as he speaks. This is what I'm talking about. This is who we can become. This is the world we can live in. They can be the ones who raise us all towards The Age of Inspiration. Teaching as a fall-back career? I couldn't have been more mistaken.

(Watch the video it's only 4:00 minutes long).



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