If I have learned anything in the seven years since I first stepped foot into the classroom as a teacher, it is that there is always something more important and foundational than what I think is at any given moment. I first thought teaching was about academic knowledge, then I thought it was about academic skills, but I am beginning to realize that before it can be about either of those things, it needs to be about coping with life.
As a student teacher, I wanted my students to have the knowledge and habits of mind necessary to be critical of society and to create a more just world. These were worthy goals, but I realized very quickly in my first year full year of teaching in Virginia that none of this mattered if my students could not read and write well.
When I moved to New York and joined the Bronx Lab School for its third year, I focused much more on improving students’ skills. Over the past four years, as both a history and English teacher, I wanted my students to be better readers and writers so that they would have the academic skills necessary to succeed in college and their careers. Again, these were worthy goals, but last month, as I watched the advisees I’ve had for the past four years walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, I realized that, once again, none of this matters without more fundamental foundations.
Thinking of the students I’ve known who just graduated, here are some of the things I want for them before I worry about their academic skills or knowledge of the world:
- I want my students to have a set of tools to deal with conflicts other than fighting, yelling, or shutting down
- I want my students to seek support or help for clinical depression and other mental illnesses
- I want my boys to use condoms, and my girls to have the courage to refuse a boy who does not
- I want my students to choose to be tested for HIV and other STI’s, and to make sure their partners are too
- I want my students to eat healthier food and get enough sleep
- I want my students to have a system of organization so that they can manage everything they need to do in their lives
- I want my students to have a way to keep track of their schedules so they don’t end up in jail because they forgot a parole officer appointment
- I want my students to have the courage to leave behind physically abusive parents the second they can
In other words, I want my students to be able to deal with the most challenging parts of the world in a healthy way. If they can’t do that, it won’t matter what academic skills and knowledge they have or what they know.