My first career was as an architect. I worked on the 23rd floor in downtown Chicago, with a breath-taking view across the Chicago River to the old stone Wrigley Building. One night a week, with a frigid wind whipping me in the face, I would walk across the bridge and up Michigan Avenue to a large church at the base of the John Hancock Center. There, with my wife, we tutored two elementary age children from a local school. There was something nourishing in that relationship, something meaningful and warm. I began to wonder if I couldn’t have a more profound influence on people’s lives (including my own) if I worked on minds instead of buildings.
Eventually, I enrolled in an alternative certification program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Through this program, I was able to quit my architecture job in March and start paid full-time teaching in August. I had taught maybe three lessons before I suddenly had my own class.
I never assumed that public education was fair and equal, but I had no idea how much inequity is actually built into the system until I saw it with my own eyes. Test scores are strongly correlated to income. Administrative policies punished the poorest students, and the teachers and schools dedicated to serving them. I became an activist. We spoke and protested against the misuse of standardized test scores to tell students they are failures, to shut down their schools, and to blame their teachers. We pointed out that the focus on test scores meant that students spent less time on creative and personally meaningful projects, and almost the entire time in test preparation for math and reading.
While certainly math skills are important, the fundamental reasons I became a teacher were not to teach standard 2.A.3.b. My goals were broader, deeper. There is never time, after all, to teach everything everybody wants you to teach. Just as there is never time to live everything you want to live. Instead, we must select what to do with this short time here on earth. I want my students to ask important, life-relevant questions. Who am I? What is my place in the world? How can I affect the world? What is meaningful to me? How did I come to these beliefs? What do I do in my daily life that shows my values?
These are the bigger questions that both students and adults struggle to answer. Reading, writing and mathematics are great tools to look into these questions. But so are the arts, religion, history, family relationships and daily activities like cooking.
In both my research and the courses I teach, we take this broader approach to education. We look at teaching as a way to change lives. We look at how our own lives were changed. We examine what our real goals are for ourselves and our students. We zero in on why we are teachers.
And then we figure out how we put that into practice, in life and in the classroom.