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“Teaching children may be the highest way to seek God. It is, however, also the most daunting way, in the sense of the greatest responsibility.” — Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature
For many children and families the last weeks of summer are winding down now, but for many devoted teachers preparing for the new school year began as soon as the last one ended. As I wrote in a letter to teachers and educators in “The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation,” after parents, teachers are probably the greatest influencers and molders of children’s futures. Teaching has to be more than just a job; it has to be a calling. I share Nobel Laureate in Literature and teacher Gabriela Mistral’s belief that “a love for children opens up more paths for teachers than pedagogic theory does.” You can have the best equipped school, smallest class size, and a great curriculum, but if teachers and principals do not love children, children will know it — and be hurt. Teachers must be committed to finding and nourishing the gifts in each child and to building a child’s sense of confidence and competence. Teachers’ negative attitudes and messages can compound a child’s learning difficulties, but a teacher’s regular compliments and support can motivate, and even save a child’s life.
I recommend that teachers and adults ponder more of the great poet-teacher Gabriela Mistral’s wisdom and sense of mission about educating children:
• “Teach always, in the courtyard and on the street, as if they were the classroom. Teach with your demeanor, expression, and words.”
• “Live the beautiful theories. Live with kindness, energy, and professional integrity.”
• “Brighten your lessons with beautiful words, with a pertinent story, and relate each piece of knowledge to real life.”
• “If we don’t achieve equality and culture in the school, where else can such things be required?”
• “A teacher who does not read has to be a bad teacher. She’s reduced her job to a mechanical function, by not renewing herself spiritually.”
• “Everything can be expressed so long as it’s presented properly. Even the harshest reprimand can be made without humiliating or poisoning a soul.”
• “It’s an intolerable breach of instruction to teach facts without teaching how to learn.”
• “The fingers of a potter should be firm and soft and loving, all at the same time.”
• “It’s vital to consider the school not only as one person’s house, but as everyone’s house.”
Educators, school boards, and communities nationwide routinely say they want all children to have a quality education but too often do not make the uncomfortable and unpopular decisions that make this possible and persist over the long haul. It is time for all public schools and public school systems to become equitable, child-focused institutions that serve all children with love, respect, competence, high expectations, and committed leadership. Educating all of our children can be done if love and commitment to children guide our actions.
I thank all educators who are devoting themselves to preparing and inspiring the next generation, and I urge many more young people — especially young people of color and males, like many of the college-aged servant-leaders who teach in Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools programs — to consider the noble calling of teacher as a life choice. It will make such a difference in the lives of countless children left behind and to the future of America.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.