Lucky me: a few weeks ago I got to be a fly on the wall at a Master Class hosted by The Academy for Teachers, a new and noteworthy endeavor that allows selected teachers from the New York City area schools time to share, learn, and frankly to be respected and rewarded in their profession.
I was tagging along as the ever smart and witty feminist Gloria Steinem gave a master class on social activism and feminism. Certainly it was a treat to hear Gloria ruminate on the intertwining of race and gender, of our need for inter-dependence, and on her defense of Sheryl Sandberg: "Only if you are a woman does success disqualify you from offering advice." Gloria also shared clips from MAKERS, a project I have been so fortunate to have a hand in bringing to life, which is why I got to attend this otherwise intimate setting. Among other MAKERS clips, Gloria shared one of Ruth Simmons talking about accepting the presidency of Brown University, the first woman to do so. Simmons initially wanted to decline, but a peer encouraged her to change her mind noting: if you don't say yes, they won't ask another woman. Even when you know the history of the women's movement, as I feel like I do, hearing the vulnerabilities of America's most powerful women makes triumph seem all the more possible and personal.
But what was more of a treat that day was to see these sixteen teachers representing rough New York City public schools and the cushiest of NYC's private schools share in their common bond of teaching -- or rather what more specifically seems to have been a shared desire to get kids to rise their potential, to spread wisdom, to inspire fierceness and yes, to boldly be the one person that is likely to make the difference in so many kids lives.
We hear news of messed up educational systems, underpaid teachers and children who are failing, but we rarely get to hear the stories of those who make teaching their profession, who generation after generation dive into this undervalued and underpaid profession. They do it because they believe if not them, who? And our kids are all the more lucky because of it. Granted these teachers were nominated and selected, but I want to believe that there are many more like them. They go above and beyond because they know that kids' lives depend on them. This savior through education is a familiar story when it comes to more beleaguered communities. What struck me amidst this particular cadre was that the rescuing wasn't exclusively about taking someone from a socially marginalized place and helping them get to a place of comfort. Kids in the most privileged communities need to be exposed to how much richer their lives can be if they are surrounded by those who are less like them. These teachers were the embodiment of a quote Gloria left us all with: We are linked, not ranked.
As I left that day, I felt so much happier about the education my own kids were getting. I realized, too, that my bias toward teachers also started in a very personal place: my grandfather was a beloved teacher, a white man who insisted on teaching in integrated schools in the fifties and sixties. I remember getting many props in my childhood because they knew me to be his granddaughter. I have a clear memory of a dozen or so people who made the connection and happily asked: "Aren't you Guy Richards' granddaughter?" I know those teachers are likely to get those same affirmations as they plant the seeds of change.