When I was a graduate student in New York, one of the first assignments I had to do in my educational foundations course was to compose a philosophy statement. Once we’d composed our individual philosophy statements we were asked to share them around the table, round-robin style. As we went around we heard a lot about helping children and doing the right thing and giving back to society. My own contribution was something to the effect of getting into education as a matter of continued personal learning. I was mostly in it for myself.
Of course I was able to adapt that initial philosophy statement and shape it into something more appropriate to the experiences of my first year of teaching. I moved almost overnight from a self-serving individualist who wanted to reread Shakespeare to a creature more compassionate and giving—something more like what I had heard that first year as a grad student.
Later in my career that philosophy statement became rather more sharp. I began thinking about how urgent my mission had become as I earned more and more experience working with New York’s most needy students. I had become convinced that time was of the essence. That years, nay a lifetime, of educational neglect, had brought to light the emergent conditions these kids were facing. Years of neglect had literally stunted each kid’s reading on average three years below grade level. High School students were not only reading on a 5th grade level, but writing horribly, thinking superficially, and speaking, if at all, about nothing and far from persuasively. The cause had crystallized and effectively radicalized me.
These days I am older and wiser. I’ve seen more of the struggle and have participated in the struggle no less vehemently than ever in the past. Some changes, however, are apparent. Mostly, I am more patient today than in the past. I feel less responsibility for the conditions of my students and more of a participant in relieving some of the stress of that condition. My goals have changed from saving their lives (a prejudiced notion that implies that there is somehow something wrong with their lives) to contributing to their lives in the form of skill sets, literary exploration and having a few laughs along the way.
Today, my educational philosophy hinges on empowering students to participate in their society. To use words and knowledge as weapons and tools that build their worlds and defends their lives. I teach less to indoctrinate and more to encourage students to find out more on their own. I often tell students that a good education is not knowing all the answers, but knowing how to find out the answers to all the questions they have. Today, I have discovered the truth about teachers’ roles as the so-called ‘guide on the side’, and I am he.