If you ever want a dose of humbling reality, read some Freire. For those who don’t know Paulo Freire, please look him up. His life as an educator is an inspiration to consistently do more. His work often, at first, creates a sense of frustration at how little I’ve accomplished. Once I get past that frustration, however, it helps me recognize how lucky I am, and that I need to find ways to use my advantages to help others.
I finished his final book, Pedagogy of Freedom, last week, and while I am still processing it, a few statements stood out to me most. The first is this.
Whether the teacher is authoritarian, undisciplined, competent, incompetent, serious, irresponsible, involved, a lover of people and of life, cold, angry with the world, bureaucratic, excessively rational, or whatever else, he/she will not pass through the classroom without leaving his or her mark on the students.
The fact that I was in the Dominican Republic working with underprivileged children with a seemingly endless desire for knowledge and personal connection may have driven this sentiment home. This was a fortunate coincidence – reading Freire and working with these students. I didn’t know what to expect going into the trip. At first, I stood back because I wanted the high school students I was chaperoning to drive the work. But, when a little girl took my hand the first morning in a group circle and wouldn’t let go, my purpose became obvious. I wanted to take every chance I would have over the next three days to make that girl smile. Soon, that turned into making connections with as many students as I could and becoming the teacher-student Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
This made me think of Drew Dudley’s TED Talk, Have You Changed Someone’s Life without Knowing It?
He tells the story of a moment in which he changed the direction of a young woman’s life and he did not remember this moment at all. How many times must we impact a student’s life without knowing it, both positively and negatively? What is it that keeps us from recognizing this fact.
“As long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse to to expect it everyday from ourselves and each other.”
As teachers I feel like we often forget the fact that we are always leaders, whether we want to be or not. We look at administrators, teachers speaking at conferences, teachers who write books, as leaders. Yet, every day we have the opportunity to improve the life of a single child. In a school year, teaching 20-30 students for 180, we need to recognize that the opportunities for us to impact a child’s life are immense.
Those young children in the Dominican that gave me the opportunity to connect with them was an amazing experience. One of the high school students on the trip shared a powerful reflection during a group activity – he explained that he felt great purpose in connecting with two particular students, but he was also sad thinking about the fact that he may never know where those two students’ lives lead.
I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been fortunate enough to see my first classes of third graders graduate the past two years. I’m glad to see how far they’ve come and where they’re going, but I may not find out where they end up. I also do not know all the ways I impacted their lives.
Educating young children comes with the territory of having an impact that may be forgotten. I know the names of every teacher I had in elementary school, but the memories of those years are minimal. The truth is that many of my former students will forget much of what they did in third grade, but I will still have had an impact on their lives. As Drew Dudley points out, which moment has an impact isn’t completely up to me.
My hope is that I don’t forget the lessons I have relearned over the past few weeks. Every day is a chance for me to have a positive impact on those around me. Whether they remember it or not, whether I remember it or not, I need to make sure that the mark I leave on others is a positive one.
One of my students gave me this block quote at the end of this school year:
I never thought of myself as a superhero, but I think that’s how children see us, especially younger ones. I am no superhero fanatic, but as Stan Lee told us in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think Freire would have agreed.