He who opens a school door closes a prison.
– Victor Hugo
I’m flying to Alice, TX at the moment. The good folks of Alice have invited me to speak at their back to school commencement.
This, to me, it weird.
I’ll be speaking about my work with the Freedom Writers Foundation. Specifically, I’ll be talking about what it was like to write and edit a book with 149 other teachers and what insights the process and the content of the book provided. I’m also trying to think about what I wanted to hear at the beginning of my school years.
Without fail, before heading back to the classroom, I consulted the writings of Harry Wong in The First Days of School. The first two years I read the entire book, sure what I needed to be the best possible teacher was contained within those pages.
Before my third year of teaching, I read only one section of the book. In fact, I read only two pages of the book – the section titled seven questions students have on the first day of school.
It’s only as I write this that I realize the help Wong provided was rooted in my answering of students’ questions, not his answering of mine.
In shifting my thinking toward anticipating and answering those questions for my students, Wong shifted my thinking from my summer mindset of paying attention largely to my own needs and wants to those of my students.
It started the ignition of my teacher brain.
Yes, I would need to be challenged and cared for throughout the year. I would have my own questions that needed answering. Those six questions, though, reminded me that even the toughest, most frustrating students entered my classroom trepidacious about what they were getting themselves into,and it was my job to start the year by anticipating and working to meet their most basic needs – to start our time together by assuaging as much of their fears as I could.
I’m not one for the customer service model of education. The adoption of any type of capitalist thinking into a realm that is only at it’s best when everyone is supporting everyone else, muddies the waters in a way that is counterproductive to the mission of a democratically educated citizenry.
We do not work to anticipate and meet the needs of students because of the gains it might garner down the road. We anticipate and meet the needs of students because they are people and we care for them.
I suppose that’s the larger message for tomorrow – I do not matter. More to the point, any advice I give does not matter. If I can ask the right questions and encourage the teachers of Alice to ask the right questions of how best to see and serve their students, perhaps I will have done some good.