What I’ve Learned in the last decade… as a Teacher

Today marked the beginning of my 10th year of teaching for the 2nd largest public school district in the nation. Though I’ve been educating students long before that, there is something very unique about classroom teaching. At one point in my career, I never would have believed that I would find so much satisfaction in teaching in a “traditional” classroom with four walls and desks that are hard to reconfigure. Yet, here I am almost a decade later. Now don’t get me wrong, there are days where I would gladly trade in my desks for crazy creek chairs and four walls for 360 degree panoramas, the outdoor and adventure education context I came from and often long for still. Yet I have been able to some degree integrate some of those experiences within the context of my LAUSD career. But I have also learned a myriad of other lessons that have helped to further shape my understanding of learning and how we frame it in our public institutions. I would like to reflect on those here.

Learning will always be Political
I teach history and social science. As a group, history teachers tend to be the ones in the faculty meetings who do not shy away from conflict, arising many times from differences of political perspectives. Other teachers might look on thinking to themselves, “Why is so and so always brining up politics? I just want to teach students.” Admittedly there are days when I couldn’t feel this sentiment more. And yet, if I am afforded the opportunity to step back and reflect on what is happening in my classroom, what I would like to be happening, or any number of other things related to teaching… not too far behind are the political realities that influence (often beyond our control… but not always) our communities, institutions, and consequently every individual within them. I teach social studies using a four world framework developed at USC’s College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (no that does not qualify me as a traitor to the Blue and Gold) and within that framework, students soon realize that politics is part of everything. From the realities of underfunding our public schools and ridiculously large class sizes, to the policy shifts around curriculum and assessment, and suspension, education is a political act by nature. I have never made an attempt to hide this from myself or my students. To do so would be disingenuous… and would therefore stifle the learning. As such, being politically intentional has always been a significant part of my identity as a teacher in the past 9 school years. Involvement with my union, activist community organizations, and explorations into curriculum and instruction that promote and foster civic participation have framed the way I approach social studies instruction in my classroom.

Learning Happens Everywhere
This may seem like a no brainer. Especially coming from someone who professes the power of experiential and outdoor models of education. But I don’t think it’s importance can be understated enough. Humans are built to learn. It is deep in the essence of our “intelligent design.” And yet I have lost count how many times I have heard educators say that this student or that student are incapable of learning. That is false. Our students learn every single minute of the day. What they are learning should be our chief concern. Are they learning how to avoid risk and challenge? Are they learning how to believe in themselves? Whether they are in your class or not, they are learning something, somewhere. It is our job to tap into that.

Collaboration is the Engine of Innovation/Creativity
This was something of a profound revelation when I first experienced the power of collaboration for myself. Once I was opened to the possibilities that working with others provided… it was on. From exploring graffiti with Antero and our students, to creating GeoSpatial Counter-narratives with my beloved TIIP team, to the most intensive and ongoing collaborative effort that is the Hawk, I have never in my life felt more creative and powerful than when working with other educators, artists, community members, friends…

Good teaching and learning is Relational
At the heart of everything is… well… the heart I guess. To have a transformative pedagogy, one has to start from a place of love. When you open yourself up to creating and maintaing powerful relationships… you open yourself to the possibility of transformation. Change. This is the purpose of education. In one sense or another. Never staying static, always growing and learning. Always fighting the inequities of the status quo. I would not be the teacher I am today without the relationships I have had the opportunity to cultivate during my time in the classroom. This weekend was just one of many moments that reaffirmed the relational aspect of my job to me. A student that my wife and I have watched grow since the 6th grade came to us asking for help. She is about to depart for her first year of college, away from home and her family. Her parents are undocumented and therefore could not act as her guarantors on her dorm lease. This hiccup was not about to get in the way of a lifetime of hard work in her pursuit of the “American Dream.” Our relationship is one of student/teacher… one of family. Always. No matter which institution she will be attending at the moment. So many of us build relational power with students, organizing ourselves into a larger, more transformative community that defies race, class, geography, and generational distance. It is relationships that provide the power to learn from one another. This will not change, no matter the reform recipe of the day.

Although this is only the end of day 1 of year number 10, it is an accomplishment and somewhat of a surprise for me. But only somewhat. I love what I do. So… like so many other teachers I know, I should probably get back to it. P.S. Our jobs have never ended at 3pm!