I entered public school instruction in 1997. For five years thereafter I taught in both California and Colorado. When I began my career I was fired with a determination to change the system from within. My own experiences as a public student had been difficult to say the least and there was a strong streak of bitterness in my desire to change the system. I was young and optimistic that I could affect great change in public schools simply by being there and doing things differently. In 2002 I began teaching middle school and it was that year that NCLB went into effect. Over the ensuing years my ability to teach freely and creatively became increasingly restrained, culminating in my school’s adoption of a mandated curriculum in 2006. From this point forward I fought deep discouragement each year, feeling that I was unable to serve my students effectively. My original optimism about bringing change from within faded. I felt trapped and unable to do anything but be part of the machine. I wondered how could I have been so naïve.
My problem, however, was not NCLB, nor the curriculum I was required to teach. Rather it was my self-limitation. I had worked for many years at a variety of jobs before entering teaching, in retail, manufacturing, and as a graphics tech. In all of those roles I had felt trapped, saying to myself on a daily basis: This is not my true profession. How long will I have to endure this? I saw the attainment of a teaching license as the doorway to the real life for which I was preparing. Once I got into teaching, I imagined that I would be happy and would perform my work with a confidence and drive lacking in previous jobs.
This preconception turned out to be largely true. I was fulfilling my calling. Still, on some deep level I was holding back and it showed in the restrictions I placed on myself in the face of the obstacles thrown at me by NCLB and my district. As much as I had a passion for teaching, I found it difficult to fully commit myself to the lives of my students. I could be warmly encouraging to a child, foster his or her growth all year, and yet fail to make a call to parents at a critical moment when doing so might have changed that student’s trajectory in my classroom. There have also been students with whom I took the extra step of setting up independent learning projects, but then failed to fully develop the project so that they had the maximum opportunity for success. And then there were students to whom I simply could not bring myself to reach out to fully. As an engaged, caring teacher, I was only willing to go 90% of the distance for my students, in good years perhaps 95%.
I do not share this self-criticism as a result of guilt, or as an act of penance. I relate this personal struggle to illustrate that it is not a matter of how a teacher works with students so much, as the teacher’s internal orientation in this profoundly human work. I wanted to show young people how they can change their lives with their own inherent power. But how could I do so if I was reluctant to do the same myself? This was my greatest impediment as an educator. And furthermore, I realize that I would have experienced this same stultification even without the constraints of NCLB. I had tried to change how I felt about my life by changing what I did in my environment: becoming a teacher. Instead, I should have been open to changing my heart so that my environment would come to reflect it. I wasn’t living up to my full potential. Thinking in terms of the growth of cherry trees, Daisaku Ikeda writes:
The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become “lazy” and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water (“Teachers of My Childhood”, Soka Education, p. 139).
Applying this analogy to myself, I see the crown of the cherry tree as my students, and the roots as myself. Because my growth was uneven, this unevenness was reflected in my students. Teaching is really about being fully open to people. When I was able to realize this, I was able to re-approach my entire career with fresh eyes. It was a shift in perspective that empowered me to approach the conditions of my work fundamentally differently, and the results have led me to dramatically change my view of my role in education.
More to come in Part II.