March 14, 2016
This March, Inspired Teaching spoke with Mr. Abdu’l-Karim Ewing-Boyd, an alum of the 2006 Inspired Teaching Institute who is now the IB Coordinator at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School. The following is a condensed version of this conversation:
Inspired Teaching: How did you decide to become a teacher?
Mr. Ewing-Boyd: It was a natural fit because I always felt very successful and comfortable in the classroom setting. In the classroom, in the library, reading books – that’s where I did well and felt good about myself.
Initially, I saw myself teaching at the college and university level, but I’ve been very happy working at the preparatory level. I taught high school for a year, worked with high school students in a test prep and consultant role for several years, and then taught sixth grade for eight years. Now, I’m the IB coordinator at EW Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, working on curriculum development and teacher support.
How did you find Inspired Teaching?
The first year I taught sixth grade was a pretty big jump for me because I’d previously been working with college and high school students. My principal suggested I take the Inspired Teaching Institute. I attended the summer intensive session and then participated in practicum sessions throughout the following school year.
How would you describe your experience at the Inspired Teaching Institute?
Initially, it was frustrating. My first impression was that it was all fluff and games, and I wasn’t very comfortable with it. I was and am someone deeply aware of both the revolutionary and oppressive possibilities of our education system. I came into education with maybe a little militancy, and the Inspired Teaching Institute at first felt like I was being asked to entertain rather than arm my students with the knowledge they needed to defend themselves against a system that could easily destroy them.
After my initial frustration, though, I started recognizing the importance of engagement, encouraging inquiry, and helping students find a sense of joy in the classroom, especially students who weren’t as comfortable and confident as I had been in the classroom. I began figuring out ways to engage all my students and to build a supportive community for everyone. I started seeing the ways that the Inspired Teaching Institute activities and resources were intended to help educators engage wider sections of the classroom. My feelings about the Institute went from skepticism to respect and recognition of usefulness.
Why is it so important to ensure that all students are engaged in the classroom experience and their own learning?
As a teacher, it’s important to engage all your students because you’re responsible for the class and for each student individually. That’s what you’re there for. Your role is to inspire students to find ways to achieve their own fulfillment and to recognize where they are in the sweep of humanity and human history.
It’s important for kids to know who they are because this helps them create a context for everything else that they’re doing. If what you’re learning doesn’t relate to who you are, then there’s no place for you to store that information. There’s no way to understand it. That’s neurologically proven. If there’s no framework for holding onto information, then information isn’t captured in long-term memory.
And in terms of basic human respect – if there’s no effort on the part of the teacher to make what you’re doing relevant to students, then you’re not recognizing students as people. They’re just a set of checkboxes to you. “I gave x kid y information. I want to see z outcome.” That’s not dealing with people; and if teaching isn’t about really seeing and helping people, then it’s ultimately pointless.
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching?
It’s when you see growth and recognition of wider contexts. When you see that people – kids or adults – understand how something new applies to them and their situation. It’s powerful watching awareness grow and broaden. That’s true when I’m working with teachers and when I’m working with kids in the classroom.
I get excited when I see kids start realizing that social ills in their neighborhoods aren’t evidence of the incapacity of their people, but proof of long term, engineered social injustices. I want them to see that the imbalance of power in gender politics playing out in Congress and on the Supreme Court and in the Presidency isn’t due to the inadequacy of women, but to the falsehoods peddled as scientific fact over generations. When people realize they are more powerful then they’ve been told – that’s wonderful.
What major challenges do you see in education right now?
The greatest challenge I see facing education right now is the exploitation now prevalent in our system. I think there’s a group of corrupt individuals taking advantage of the school reform movement, including charter schools and parent choice. Those are both fundamentally good ideas for making education more relatable to children and families. But what’s happened is that folks have taken advantage of those systems to fleece the communities they are supposed to be helping.
I’ve seen charter school leaders robbing the system. I’ve seen public school officials and union leaders robbing the system. I’ve seen how the push towards standardized testing as the goal rather than the means has enriched testing organizations at the expense of educational models that respect children. These are some of the things that bother me. They make me concerned me about the direction of education as a field and, unfortunately, as a business.
What I do like, however, is the growing recognition that the United States’ current model is not the only or the best model. I’m encouraged by the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and other standards that are aligned with education movements around the globe and focus on inquiry and children being involved in the discovery of knowledge. We are seeing a greater appreciation for systems like those in Japan, Singapore, sub-Saharan Africa, and Northern Europe that support collaborative learning and really build academic success. When children are respected, they learn more and better. I’m excited about this growing recognition. I just worry that it’s growing more slowly than the system is being fleeced.
What do you think are some of the most important skills teachers can use in the classroom?
The most important thing for a teacher to have is love. If you don’t love your students and your role, then none of it matters.
In terms of teachable skills, the most important is the ability to know your content and practice standards inside and out; then you can really focus on meeting or exceeding those standards for all the children in your classroom. Teachers also need to be able to look at curricula as resources rather than the strict framework that you use to make all decisions in the classroom. I’ve got nothing against out-of-the-box-curriculum resources as long as they’re resources, but the teacher has to know his or her content. The teacher has to know his or her way around inquiry so that students are experiencing education in the ways they need. Teachers have to be able to read and parse and really set out measurable steps and goals that will help their students be prepared for the next step in their lives.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I want to emphasize that the most important thing for teachers to know is that what they’re doing is very important. Teachers need to go in every day with a sense of purpose and love because the teaching of children is one of the most important activities that can happen. Without education, there’s no way for humanity as a whole to grow. If there’s no foundation for children to use, then we fall back to our basic animal natures. We’ve got to be able to keep moving forward. We have to create an ever-advancing civilization, and the only way to do that is through teaching. That’s the level of importance that should be assigned to teaching.