Back to school with Inspired Teaching

September 23, 2015

(Photo: Center for Inspired Teaching)

This piece was written by Aleta Margolis, Inspired Teaching’s Founder and Executive Director. This piece appeared in Inspired Teaching’s September 2015 newsletter. 

This month, students and teachers across the country went back to school, looking toward a year of building new relationships, new skills, and new knowledge.

The first day of school is an experience nearly all of us can recall, one that evokes an array of memories and emotions. I remember well my own first day of school. On September 4, 1973, I not only became a first grader, I also became a big sister. At 3:00am my father woke me, excitedly telling me it was time to go to the hospital. I jumped out of bed and into the car, thrilled at the prospect of accompanying my parents to the maternity ward of GW Hospital, only to discover I was getting dropped off at my grandparents’ apartment on the way. Though disappointed I was not invited to witness my brother’s birth, I was excited for my first day of school. I convinced my grandparents (who had hoped to go back to sleep for a few hours) to drive me back home so I could put on my first day outfit and get on the school bus. My first grade teacher, Ms. Brown, invited all of us to tell how we were feeling on this first day of school. I said ‘important’ and told my teacher and my friends about my big plans for my baby brother.

Quite a few years later, I experienced a first day of school from a different vantage point, as a student-teacher in a first grade class outside of Chicago. Remembering Ms. Brown, I invited my young students to share their feelings about the first day of school. They expressed excitement, nervousness, and hopefulness. I let them know that I too was excited, nervous, and hopeful, and together we began to develop not only reading and writing skills, but also the critical skills of listening and empathy.

On August 26, 2011, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School opened. One hundred-thirty-seven students and nearly 20 teachers and administrators embarked on the first day of school at a brand new school. Over 50 visitors—including then-Mayor Vincent Gray, the DC State Superintendent, City Council members, and members of the media—also arrived that day to learn about and show support for this new school that intended to build students’ intellects and imaginations, to teach them important information and the skills to put that information to use, including critical thinking and empathy. Now in its fifth year, the school has been named an Ashoka Changemaker School, and continues to thrive. As Head of School Deborah Dantzler-Williams says, it is “a place where students flourish, feel appreciated and in charge of their learning, where educators trust children and are trusted to do great work, where families feel our appreciation for entrusting their treasures to us.”

On the first day, and every day of school, Inspired Teachers everywhere challenge their students to engage in rigorous academic work and build the critical skills they will need to thrive in school and in all aspects of life. Empathy allows us to remember what it felt like when we were students ourselves, and to consider the unique experiences and perspectives of our students as we design and teach lessons intended to meet their needs. Empathy makes us better listeners. It helps teachers make school good for kids, and it helps Center for Inspired Teaching support teachers as professionals. We call on teachers to activate their empathy as we teach them, year after year, through our programs for experienced, new, and aspiring teachers.

One of our central activities involves inviting teachers to reflect on positive and negative experiences they had as students in school, and asking them to connect their childhood experiences to their instructional philosophy as teachers. We spend a great deal of time engaging teachers in the discomfort of learning something new for the first time – and the joy of finally “getting it.” My daughter, a high school student herself, did an internship with Inspired Teaching over the summer and remarked on how her time with BLISS and SCALE Teacher Leaders made her fully appreciate just how much teachers care about their students, and how much time and effort they dedicate to imagining and re-imagining the classroom with their students’ needs and interests in mind.

Our dedication to building empathy, in our teachers and our students, connects us with Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, whose Start Empathy initiative identifies empathy as “the new literacy” for success in a complex and changing world. Empathy, Ashoka points out, “lies at the heart of teamwork, good leadership, and real-world problem-solving.” As a key partner in the national education campaign Think It Up, Ashoka has invited Center for Inspired Teaching to contribute resources for teachers seeking guidance on developing engaging, student-centered projects in subjects like the social studies and science, which teach key content while simultaneously building vital skills like empathy.

As Center for Inspired Teaching looks back on 20 years and looks forward to the years ahead, we stand firm in our commitment to changing the norm so that school becomes engaging, challenging, and powerful for all students, especially as they build the core competencies that will help them thrive in the 21st century. The teachers you’ll read about this month are forging new ground as changemakers in their classrooms and communities. Best wishes to all of our outstanding teachers and their students as they start another school year together.

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