June 8, 2023

Manifesto on a Life in Education: A Call to the Next Generation of Educators

Jennifer D. Klein
“When individuals decide to become teachers, they enter an unbreakable pact with the future. They promise to do the best they can with what they have and with what they know in order to mold successfully the next generation.”  --Debbie Silver, Jack C. Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen

It all began in a schoolhouse in Costa Rica. Loud rain on a high metal roof, tall windows that let the green into my classroom. Little desks for big teenagers who were outgrowing their own bodies, desks I had them place in a circle every day at the start of class and put back in rows at the end of class for the math teacher I shared the room with. I remember their long legs sticking out from under those tiny desks, adolescents of all sizes and colors coming into my classroom smiling and squeezing themselves into their seats. Earthquake drills and textbooks that said “American Literature” on the cover even though this was America, too, and not a single Central American author was nestled inside. Grade books and being called “Ms. Klein” for the first time. Months of not even recognizing when people were calling my name.

It started with them. The brilliant boy whose father won the Nobel Peace Prize. The thoughtful boy who had been bullied his whole life, who tried to kill himself before I met him. The C+ girl who plagiarized an essay because she couldn’t face her A+ mother. The creative girl who crafted stories out of the shadows of her past. The neglected boy whose body language said closed until I knocked on the door loudly enough, who wrote poetry that made me weep. The son of the registrar who got a perfect score on his SATs. The beautiful girl who cried in my classroom after soccer practice because the boys wouldn’t pass her the ball and constantly tried to knock her down. The boy who fell asleep in class, the boy I sent to the principal’s office once, twice, three times. The identical twins I didn’t realize were twins until I saw them in the hall together, three months into the school year. The girl who gazed at me with longing, the boy who wrote me love poems. The girl who knew he was a boy, the boy who knew she was a girl. The students I reached, and the students I didn’t reach. It started with them: with all of them, with each of them. I had taught before, but I wasn’t an educator until I taught them.

I have no illusions about the challenges of teaching; it is one of the hardest jobs there is. It is made harder every day by the endless list of things teachers must do, and by the endless list of things we are no longer allowed to do: to care for every child as though they were our own, to affirm every single identity, to teach all of our students’ histories. We can’t protect them from the shooters and poverty and legislation, from societies that don’t see them as whole human beings in a world that doesn’t recognize their rightful presence. We can only give them a hot meal every day, try to inspire something real and entirely theirs in each of them. We teach our students to tie their shoes, to sing at the top of their lungs, to use numbers and letters and words and ideas in ways we hope will make their lives richer and more meaningful. We wipe their noses when they’re little, hand them the tissue box when they’re older. We watch them grow out of new clothes, watch them expand upward into adulthood, watch them wonder and question and struggle. It is hard as hell, and there is no better calling.

I had different plans before I fell in love with teaching. I wanted to act, and I wanted to write. I saw myself as a novelist and a poet until their stories took over the narrative. Suddenly, I wanted to hear every fascinating, messy idea that might come from their fascinating, messy minds. It turned out I knew how to ask the right questions, how to listen, how to believe them when they were honest about themselves. We put our desks in a circle and moved them back into rows at the end of every class. I went home every day covered in colored dry-erase residue, had to throw away everything white I owned. I tried to bring out the best in them; I tried to make them care about everything, to make them want to change the world. I knew they would change the world.

And most of them did. They followed their passions, found joy, carved pathways I couldn’t have imagined when they were 15. They built careers, loved fiercely, acted for justice and worked for peace. Some of them became parents; others did not. We lost a few along the way: the poet who drowned in a kayaking accident, the sensitive visionary who overdosed, the bullies who became real life predators in spite of all our best efforts. And we wept for every one of them as though they were our own children.

It's easy to romanticize education, so let’s get real for a moment. Teaching is filled with difficult moments because children are complex human beings growing up in a challenging world. I remember my overwhelming sense of helplessness when the Twin Towers fell on September 11th, adolescents searching my face for answers I didn't have. For days, I had no more important job than to sit with my students in their shock and confusion until they no longer dreamt of planes smashing into buildings. In the weeks and months following, as the US invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, I had no words or strategies to help them navigate anything because, quite frankly, I was struggling to navigate all of it myself. Educators have to do this all the time: to support the needs of young people while simultaneously making meaning ourselves, to find the balance between seeming confident and sure for the sake of comforting them, and allowing students to see our vulnerabilities and fears because we are, after all, just as human as they are.

During my 19 years in the classroom, I led hundreds of hard discussions with teenagers about race and identity, about sexuality and society, all in the context of the literature we were reading. I remember white students telling me they didn’t think they had a culture, and black and brown students who said culture was all anyone saw in them. I made sure the queer kids knew my classroom was a safe space, a place to figure out who they were, and that I wouldn’t push them about anything they weren’t ready to share. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I always apologized and learned and tried to do better the next time. I let my students teach me what I needed to know about how to handle hard conversations, how to create safe spaces for all of them. I remember personal truths revealed in their creative writing, in their journals, and the constant struggle to figure out how to help when they lost their way. I remember a short story one student wrote, years after her mother died, about her unwillingness to smile for the camera the last time her mother tried to take her photo. I cried for days; I felt her wounds as though they were my own. I remember their illnesses, too: the girl with a rare form of bone cancer whose legs stopped working one morning, the girl who heard voices, the girl who stopped eating and literally disappeared before my eyes. Being an educator is the saddest job in the world some days, but it comes with sudden moments of blinding joy as well.

Like parents, we get to help raise these young people. We help them discover their talents, identify their passions, learn to seize opportunities for improvement and work hard to reach new goals. We create the space in our classrooms for them to form their identities, make mistakes, and flourish. As Sir Ken Robinson said many times, educators are gardeners and our job is to create the conditions for growth, not to force it. We help our students see themselves more clearly, and we help them become their best selves. Like Prometheus, we give our students the gift of fire: the ability to think for themselves, to reason, to become what Zoe Weil calls “solutionaries,” humans who wield that fire of creativity and knowledge to solve their communities’ most urgent challenges. We don’t inculcate them into our personal ideas about the world; we expose them to myriad perspectives, teach them to ask good questions, to listen to and believe others’ experiences, and to come to their own conclusions. We offer grounding in times of chaos, calm in times of upheaval, and a gentle push to become the best possible versions of themselves. Along the way, they teach us how to be better people as well, how to find wonder in small things, how to stay enthusiastic about growth, how to celebrate small wins amid the chaos of a complex world. And they keep us young.

So why do we stay in education, given the demands, the low pay, the increasingly severe pressures caused by legislation and testing and political division? When you hear stories about teachers spending their own money to address their students’ needs, it’s not a phenomenon—it’s the norm. We stay because we love children, because we’ve found that age group we love spending time with more than any other (mine was 14-15 year olds, who are curious and squirrely and laugh at my jokes). Most teachers I know like hanging out with their students more than with other adults. We get to spend our working lives sharing their awe as the butterflies break out of cocoons before our eyes, sharing their pain as they learn about war and poverty, and sharing their hope as they make choices about the kinds of people they want to be. And we stay because, as they say across many parts of Africa, it takes a village to raise a child.

I’m writing to you now, the next generation of teachers, because I believe that education has the power to change the world, and because I believe we can transform it to better serve the needs of all students. I’m writing to you because all I see online are teachers leaving the field, good people who did their best for decades and then fled, defeated by regulations, test scores, and external demands, often forced to choose between meeting those expectations and meeting the needs of the kids actually in their classrooms. I’m writing because our kids need you. Our world needs you. Without passionate teachers who love kids and know how to create the conditions for their growth, it’s not just our schools that will fail; society relies on us to foster the talents that lead to the work our students will do one day. We will have no doctors if we don’t have teachers to inspire that pathway in childhood; we won’t have scientists, artists, or athletes without good teachers doing good work in the background. We won’t even have educators. Our job isn’t about standards and regulations; it’s about fostering a better future, one child at a time.

To be honest, it never really gets easier to be an educator; you just get better at it. You'll learn to recognize vulnerability, to build a sense of safety, to create the conditions for growth and confidence. You'll figure out what really matters—the kids, not the standards—and if you stay long enough, you'll feel as though you’ve parented thousands of children. If you try, you'll learn to let them teach you, to listen to their wildest ideas with that wide-eyed belief that anything is possible. If you do your job well, you'll breathe belief into them just by seeing your students as whole people, all their messy complexity included. You’ll learn to love that messiness, the buzz of motivated chaos, and you might even start to think like they do, that the most miraculous thing in the world is watching a ladybug cross a leaf, or finding the confidence to say what you really believe.

In a hidden pocket in my wallet, I carry a tiny note I received from a kindergarten student at a school I led in Colombia, two days after my mother died very suddenly. I pull out the simple heart and “I ❤️ Llenifer” message whenever I need to be reminded why I dedicated my life to education. The work of teachers is exhausting and frustrating. It requires more hope, optimism and courage than I have most days. But I can’t think of anything I would rather do.

See Jennifer read this blog with educators for What School Could Be, as part of the Elevating Teacher Voice series hosted by Jan Iwase.

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