I keep waking in the middle of the night thinking about education. It could be that I'm beginning to experience pre-menopausal symptoms of being unable to sleep a full night, or it could be that I drink enough wine every night to affect my sleep patterns. Or it could just be that my brain is so fired up about what I do that I have to get it out some way ... so here goes.
Once, not too long ago, the headmaster of a local private school K-8 offered me the position of Language Arts teacher. I was currently teaching English in a local public high school with a salary $10,000 more than the private school could offer me. I didn't accept the position, but he wasn't going to give up. When I answered the phone a few days later, he was on the line to try and talk me into it. After a short conversation, he said, "I know that accepting this position would be a significant drop in your salary, but, think about it, you wouldn't have to teach 'those kids.'" My astonishment quickly turned to anger. I replied, "Sir, I want to teach where I'm needed. I'm needed in public schools, and that's where I'm staying." That was a turning point. For me, it was public education or bust.
It hit me in the gut when it came to my own son. Was he going to a public school? There were so many excellent private schools nearby that choosing that route would be easy, but my husband and I made the decision, after two pre-school years in a local Montessori school, to enroll him in our local public kindergarten. Our reasoning? Diversity.
This was our train of thought. If we send Max to a private school with students who are generally white and from a middle to upper class economic status, then how will he learn to interact with the people from all walks of life, those who make up the rest of our diverse society? We kept returning to this question.
I grew up attending our local public school, and I turned out ok. My husband grew up attending a school that his parents had a hand in starting, but then enrolled in public school in 4th grade. He turned out ok. More than turning out ok, we churned up our good memories of school to discover that they revolved around all the interesting people we connected to who were very different from us but somehow influenced who we are today. Our relationships with them also taught us tolerance and formed in us the need to connect to the world by giving back.
I thought my educational mantra was special. It was one that I began to articulate when I was in my early twenties. Create students who, when they become adults, are productive citizens, who give back to society to create a circle of connectivity, and who continue to learn for themselves and for the next generation. Now in my early 40's after ten years of teaching, I realize that this is the primary vision, mission, and/or goal of all our schools. Now I ask myself how exactly do we create a citizen who is productive and willing to give back to society? It comes back to diversity.
Here's the connection. Imagine a high school English class ... better yet, imagine an American Studies class that focuses on the connection between our country's history and its literature. Now imagine the students sitting in rows before the teacher. You have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, poor kids, kids with disabilities, rich kids .... you get the picture. Now imagine the discussions that you're going to hear in this classroom. (The assumption is that we have an excellent teacher who knows the value of pushing students to talk about what matters to them in the context of a rigorous set of relevant questions.) Students in the classroom will learn not only that we are all connected, they will learn why and how we are connected. This will serve them well later, and this is what I believe is the key to creating people who see the need to give back; if you know that you are connected to everyone else, and you know how and why, you will be more likely to give back because in the end, it affects us all.