I just now returned from a UCIEP trek to Golden Apple, a foundation that focuses on the importance of teachers in Illinois classrooms and offers a collective initiatives aimed at teacher appreciation, professional development, and scholarship opportunities. We had the opportunity to meet with a large number of staff at the foundation, almost all of whom told their own narratives of past and present experience as teachers in K-12 classrooms. I very much enjoyed introductions by Dom (Dominic Belmonte, President & CEO of the foundation), a very charismatic leader who describes himself as a South Side Italian who relied on his moxy to succeed, both in life and as a teacher. When talking about teaching, Dom said:
“It’s an artisan’s kind of work. We’re artists.”
This statement is very simple, relaying a sentiment that is often articulated by the best of teachers, and yet it got me thinking. How do teachers find teaching as a profession? Golden Apple offers aspiring teachers scholarship opportunities, and those who become fellows are offered an array of professional development opportunities in order to achieve their goal of becoming teachers, and furthermore, to become good teachers. For those who already teach, Golden Apple offers awards that recognize outstanding, committed teachers, and provides them with further professional development, as well as the opportunity to teach classes to others in the teaching profession. But all of these opportunities come to those teachers who already are or know they want to be teachers. So, the question remains: how do people discover their desire to be teachers?
Dom’s statement about teaching as an art form referred to the practical ingenuity and creativity that are crucial skills for teachers to have, particularly in the neediest schools. But I think there’s another practical dimension to this statement as well. Like artists, teachers must have passion. The work must be fulfilling to the individual on a deeper, emotional level (because, as we all know, most people in both professions are unlikely to ever achieve great material wealth). This passion doesn’t just allow people to take the risk of pursuing an insecure profession with difficult work and low pay. This passion doesn’t just make teachers–it makes good teachers. As all of the teachers and former teachers of Golden Apple articulated, it is the passion of a teacher that allows him or her to connect with children, make children believe that they give a damn about what happens to their students in and outside of the classroom setting.
The policy reforms that try to “fix” inner-city schools through the use of complex quantitative data and strict numerical metrics fail because they continue to miss the point. The point is that kids with high risk factors in dangerous environments require teachers who are not robots. They need teachers who are not scientifically proven efficient, and who are not chosen on the basis of their ability to follow a curriculum that is completely unrelated to the issues that impoverished children face in their everyday lives. These kids need teachers with passion. In short, these kids need artists.