Critical Lessons & Educational Change

An open letter to new teachers who want to change the world

Rebecca Page Johnson

December 2010

An open letter to new teachers who want to change the world:

In the winter of 2002, Davong Peak walked out of his apartment fully dressed in jeans and his signature navy blue hoody.  He put on his backpack and walked down Chestnut Street past my house, turned and traveled down the hill to the Cayuga Lake Inlet.  At some point along the way, he filled his backpack with bricks and stones.  When he arrived at the bridge, he climbed up on the stone guard rail, tightened the straps of his backpack, and jumped through the ice into the frigid water.  I lay sleeping soundly two blocks away.  No one knows if he struggled or how long it took; the hole in the ice was too small to know what or who had passed through its edges.  The note Davong left at his house prompted the Ithaca Fire Department to stage a rescue of his body.  When I drove to work that morning I passed the roped off sidewalk and legions of firemen dressed in wetsuits attempting to find him.

When I arrived at school that morning, I was told that my former student, Davong Peak was dead.  I had fifteen minutes to prepare to tell a classroom full of teenagers the news. I now have a lifetime to figure out how I could have connected to Davong in a way that would have prevented him from filling his backpack full of bricks.

Insomnia and endless grading often wakes me and I usually rise to sit at my kitchen table, which is literally five feet from the sidewalk Davong traveled to walk to his death. If that night my light had been on, if he had seen me crouched over papers at my table perhaps he would have stopped, perhaps he would have been jolted out of his plan.  Everyday Davong sat in my ESL classroom with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled around his face.  It was too big for his tall thin frame, and only occasionally would he look up and smile at my antics.  My comedy/teacher routine worked especially well with my male students but Davong was a hard egg to crack.  He did not talk much.  When he did speak, his English was clear but he lacked formal academic skills as a result of growing up in Burma, and in a refugee camp.  His best friend, Wan Jiu was from China, and they spent most of their time together.  Wan stopped talking after Davong died, and despite my efforts to connect to Wan, I could not reach him.  And I did not reach Davong.  I will always wonder what small change could have made the difference, what shift in habit or daily routine could have changed the trajectory of his life and death.

It’s funny, they say “Make a Difference – Be a Teacher.”  What they don’t tell you is that you will not ALWAYS make a difference.  In fact, the times that you make a difference are small and rare…..and precious.  And what they will never tell you is that the times you don’t make a difference will forever haunt you and perhaps teach you much more than your successes.  Teaching public school is a rare kind of profession; you are entrusted with the lives and minds of people from every walk of life.  The children you meet have experienced and lived in ways you both can and cannot imagine.  No teacher can have perfect knowledge or experience to understand all of her students.  All one can really do is try to treat each and every student with respect and dignity, and accept that this, although the only sustainable choice, is not enough to save them all.  I still struggle with what our role is in “saving” people – and what that construction even says about the identity of teachers and students.  The theories of power and authority, discipline and punishment all seem to collapse in the immediacy of a teenage crisis.  Teaching school is an intuitive spontaneous process of reacting to multiple stimuli while attempting to deliver intellectual content and process in a way that prepares students for examinations and the future.

I have seen and felt the pain and isolation that teenagers feel, and I wonder why we don’t do more to help them.  However, taking seriously the position of mentor means completely consuming your time with counseling and supporting students.

So I leave you with this advice.  Use the resources in your school to help students.  Try to help the school as a whole to solve problems that likely impact very many students.  If one student is having trouble with the college guidance office – others probably are too.  Don’t be afraid to speak up in staff meetings to talk about what your students are saying.

Confront racism, sexism, and homophobia in daily discussions.  One person speaking up makes a world of difference for your students and your colleagues and creates a climate where more people feel welcomed and included.  Changing the world happens in small moments.  A shared smile, an encouraging word may make the difference and takes very little of your time or energy.  It is tempting to join in the conversations with other teachers who denigrate students to survive a difficult job.  Resist.  Speaking poorly about students does not make you feel better and it may embolden unethical teachers to be even more disrespectful of students.  Model kindness and patience with students who are difficult.  Speak highly of your students’ potential.  Presume competence and imagine success.  We cannot anticipate how such small gestures can transform lives.  It is tempting to jump in and do grand acts to help your students – but this is not sustainable for you or them.  You cannot be with them for the rest of their lives.  Yet sometimes grand acts are necessary.

There are no solutions that I can put in this letter that will adequately prepare you to take on the needs of one hundred children a year.  Just know that the task before you is impossible but very worthwhile.  The rewards cannot be measured on tests or in dollars. Teaching will both break your heart and fill you up.

Good Luck.

Rebecca Page Johnson