04/11/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

Don't Save My Students... Teach Them

The School of Education that I lead partners with a wide variety of schools and school systems in the region. One of them is the Community Day Charter Public School, just five miles away from the college.

But those five miles matter. The median house price in Andover, Mass., is just around half a million dollars. In Lawrence, where the charter school is located, the average is half of that. In Andover, 57 percent of all adults have a bachelor's degree; in Lawrence, it's 11 percent. Seventy-four percent of the population in Lawrence is Hispanic, and almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, double the national average.

Yet the charter school -- which enrolls a student body that is 90 percent Hispanic, 82 percent with English as their second language, and almost 70 percent from low-income families -- has been incredibly successful. Their 6th graders, for example, had the best math and English scores in the state last year. They have not closed the achievement gap; they have demolished it.

(I am, by the way, well aware of the myriad political and methodological issues surrounding charter schools and test score comparisons; I leave these issues, though, to the side in order to tackle a different point.)

So I invited Kennedy Hilario, their Director of Schools, to come give a talk to one of my college classes. And he said something that struck me: When they interview potential teachers, he said, they get a fair number who come in and say something to the effect of that they want to "save" or "help" these kind of kids. And Kennedy tells my class that the interview is pretty much over right then and there. "We don't want you to save our kids," he tells my class, "we want you to teach them."

That's a powerful statement. He's not looking for handouts, or do-gooders, or sympathy. He just wants really talented teachers to do the best job they can and thus help his kids succeed academically.

Now, to be clear, I strongly believe -- in line with the research and activism coming out of the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" -- that one cannot talk about school success and failure without also talking about the larger socioeconomic and cultural contexts in urban and under-resourced communities. Understanding about poverty and race and language issues in American society is crucial to understanding the deep inequities and structural conditions that mitigate success for historically marginalized populations.

Yet for the charter school and those day-to-day classroom moments, Kennedy has it exactly right. He is hiring a teacher, not a social worker. We of course must have empathy. We of course must understand that our students do not walk in as blank slates through the classroom door. Indeed, we cannot be good teachers unless we understand that schools are always already part of their local communities.

So when that classroom door closes and the learning begins, I want to make sure that the teacher at the front of the room knows her stuff, knows the kids, and knows where she is going. I want someone who has a passion for teaching, rather than just a passion. For in the end, all I can do is teach, and teach well. For that will be what, if anything, truly helps.