11/16/2010 06:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two Conversations and a Piece of Paper

Dear Mr. Bernstein

I just want to say thank you for everything. You could have let me do what I wanted and I would have been held back in your class. I liked your class a lot because you never gave up on me. No matter how stupid I acted you helped me a lot and most teachers' would not have been there for me.

Thank you verry much for being more than just a teacher.

In 1992 I attended the 25th reunion of my original class at Haverford College. At one point I talked with a classmate who after teaching for many years was involved in recruiting others into teaching. During that conversation I shared some stories about the semester I had spent in 1974 as a teacher intern at Moorestown Friends School in New Jersey. When we got back to the room where we were staying on campus, my wife remarked "You know, when you tell those stories about Moorestown and teaching, your eyes light up and you become excited. You are really not all that happy with the work you are doing now. Why don't you explore becoming a teacher?" That conversation started me on an exploration of the possibility of changing careers that finally came to fruition in June of 1994 when I left my career in data processing to begin my studies at Johns Hopkins to become a teacher. Without that conversation, and my wife's willingness to take on more of the financial burdens for our life together, it is quite possible I never would even have considered thinking about changing careers.

That was the first of the two conversations. The other was a phone conversation with Jay Mathews, then principal education writer for the Washington Post. I originally emailed him after reading a book he had written that featured the high school (Mamaroneck NY) from which I had graduated in 1963. This began a relationship largely carried on by email exchanges, but with the occasional phone call as well. We had been exchanging emails about value-added assessment. As it happens, I was examining that topic as part of studies in a since abandoned doctoral program in Educational Policy. In a phone call on another topic, Jay asked if I might be willing to write something about the topic for the Post. I responded that I was thinking of doing an article for a peer-reviewed journal. His response got my attention:

"Why would you want to write for a peer-reviewed journal? They take forever to publish and who reads them anyhow? You have a gift in being able to write about education for the ordinary non-professional reader in a way that deepens their understanding."

By then, I had already participated in educational lists on line, and had had pieces about education published by the Post and by the now-defunct Journal chain of newspapers in the metro Washington, DC area. Within several years I was to become an active blogger, one who would increasingly become known for what he wrote about education. That conversation with Jay moved me in the direction of writing for a general public rather than as a scholar.

Those two conversations helped me understand several things. First, I really needed to be a teacher, for lots of reasons, but mostly because of the students. I also realized that being in the classroom fueled my passion to write and speak about education. That writing gave me entry to policy makers, to be able to talk with them about the real nature of teaching and school, the implication of policy decisions on learning and students.

And students. Ultimately that became the benchmark by which I measured anything else. As it happens, the anything else has included serving as a peer-reviewer for several journals. It has also included writing for websites of well-known publications. Increasingly I have become someone sought out by authors of books on education to write about them -- for general and political blogs, as well as online publications about books on education. I have occasionally even been paid for what I write, although certainly not enough to live on. While I always enjoy the additional income, my motivation is communication.

As a blogger I write on many topics besides those that are educational, although these often intersect with my teaching. I am a Social Studies teacher, who has taught both American and World History as well as elective courses in Social Issues and Comparative Religion, but primarily concentrates on teaching American government and politics to high school students, some taking a regular course, some taking a college level Advanced Placement course. I have for most of my life been active politically, and my blogging actually started as an offshoot of my political activity in the 2004 election cycle. Politics, government, policy, environment, human rights, music, movies, literature, art, ordinary things of life -- these catch my interest and can lead to my posting a piece.

They can also flow from or lead to discussion in class. After all, government and politics are intimately connected with many of these issues, and thus it is appropriate, sometimes even necessary, for some class time to be devoted to them.

And music, and the other items? They are part of the lives of my students, which can help them make connection with our official curriculum. They are part of my life, and the adolescents I teach very much want to be known as persons and to be able to know me as a person -- that idea of relationship seems to be key to building a positive learning environment, in which students will know it is safe to take intellectual risk, and thereby grow and learn with more than just their intellects.

The students. It starts with them, and it has to start with where they are. With one young man my second year of teaching, he was in a very unhappy place. He was in a foster home, was angry, was constantly wearing a scowl on his face, getting into fights, not doing his work. He was writing on his desks, and on his arm. He was an eight grader. I took the lead with him, making him come to me for extra help before and after school, later splitting that responsibility with his English teacher. I explained that if he was scowling and accidentally bumped into someone that other person was likely to think it was deliberate, and he would be in yet another confrontation. If only he would smile, I noted, he might even be able to deliberately nudge someone but so long as he said "Excuse me" there would probably be no confrontation.

His English teacher and I worked hard on his academic skills, working with him privately to help catch him up. We also worked on his emotional and social skills. Along the way something finally clicked, and about the beginning of March he began to blossom. Others noticed, most especially his peers. He suddenly began developing friendships, feeling less isolated. And at the beginning of June his classmates, with whom at the start of the year he was in constant conflict, overwhelmingly picked him to be their speaker at eight-grade Commencement.

I have had many notes of thanks from students and their parents over the year. If you asked me which meant the most, it is that note with which this piece began. Mark, for that is his name, thanked me for not giving up on him. Those simple words are for me what it is about, not giving up on a student, being there for her, trying to let him see the possibilities before him.

The conversation with my wife helped me understand that I needed to be a teacher. The conversation with Jay helped me grasp that my role as a teacher needed to extend beyond my classroom, through my writing, speaking mentoring and advocacy.

In between I learned the most important lesson. Those two conversations helped frame my roles and teacher and writer. But what ultimately motivates all of that is being there for the students entrusted to my care. That note from Mark is a more meaningful measure of my effectiveness as a teacher than any test scores he may later have achieved. Whenever I have doubts about continuing, now in my mid 60s, with the task of teaching -- which I assure you can be draining -- I remember that note from Mark, and similar notes from other students, and remember why I do it. It is for them, the students, that they can see the world open to them.