Confronting Savage Inequalities with Joy

May 18, 2016

(Photo credit: Brittney Oswald/Center for Inspired Teaching)

This piece – written by Aleta Margolis, Inspired Teaching’s Founder and Executive Director – appeared in Inspired Teaching’s May 2016 newsletter. 

At this year’s special 20th anniversary celebratory gala, Chocolate Inspiration, I was delighted to present Inspired Teaching’s Changemaker Award to Jonathan Kozol. As a prolific author and prominent activist, Jonathan has inspired thousands upon thousands of educators and parents – myself included – to fight for a brighter future and a more just present for all children in the United States. He has demanded that we step outside our comfort zones and confront the complex problems of poverty, racism, and educational inequality. While remaining fiercely committed to challenging the status quo, he has never lost his respect for teachers or his deep love for children. Our work at Center for Inspired Teaching is proudly founded upon the same values.

When Inspired Teaching’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld, first reached out to Jonathan Kozol, she was a new teacher in a Boston public school. Like many urban public school teachers, she was endeavoring to balance, as she put it, “being in love with my students and in love with their dreams with the terrible realities of the schools and neighborhoods in which they were growing up.” Jonathan understood. Over time, he became a regular visitor to her first grade classroom in the Roxbury section of Boston, where he had started his own career as a teacher. Moved by his interactions with Jane and her students, he wrote a book about them: Letters to a Young Teacher.

The book includes Jonathan’s characteristic focus on the “savage inequalities” of the US school system. It’s not just about resources; it’s about the kind of teaching that kids in different schools get to experience. Jonathan loved visiting Jane’s classroom because it was characterized by joy and authentic engagement in learning. Like the classrooms of all Inspired Teachers, it was based on the (proven!) premise that all young people are innately curious, want to learn, and are born with the ability to grapple with complex problems and invent solutions. Jane’s classroom was animated by the belief that students are not empty heads to fill, but rather, the owners of powerful minds who come to school excited to use those minds and with the potential to transform their communities when they do.

When students learn in this way, they build the skills and dispositions they need to be thriving, happy, and productive citizens in our complex and rapidly changing world. When teachers teach in this way, we bring about what Jonathan calls “a badly needed rebirth of jubilant vitality, healthy spontaneity, creativity, and sheer humanity and love back into our nation’s public schools.” This is Inspired Teaching’s vision.

It’s not easy. Teaching based in authentic engagement means the teacher isn’t merely asking kids to memorize content; instead, she asks them to question, explore, challenge, master – and then question again. The teacher expects more. And the teacher, especially at schools in low-income communities and communities of color, operates in an environment where her classroom often looks different than the norm. He has to be a true changemaker, convincing skeptics that this is the kind of teaching all kids need.

Our mission at Inspired Teaching is to support teachers who share this vision and are working to change the norm. Teachers like the Inspired Teaching Institute alum who helps students approach challenging work with the belief that they can be successful; teachers like those who have already joined the 2016 cohorts of BLISS, SCALE, and the Inspired Teacher Certification Program; and teachers like those whom Jonathan Kozol met this April at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, which he described as “the flowering of many of the ideas I’ve held for many years.”

We hope to find even more of those teachers and to create a school system that nurtures them. If you’re a charter school teacher or administrator in DC, contact us about joining our transformative teacher leadership programs, BLISS and SCALE, starting this summer. If you want to get to know our teachers and students and celebrate their hard work over this past year, come to Changemakers in Action, our end of year celebration on the evening of June 7. If you share our vision and know others who do, too, introduce them to Inspired Teaching. Join the movement and be part of our work transforming the education system so that school is the best it can be for every child and every teacher.

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