02/28/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Who's Got the Soul to Teach?

A few months ago, after I returned to teaching elementary school on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, my friend Holly Pavlika of Momentum Nation asked me what it meant to be a teacher. I have been thinking about this question for several months and, Holly, I'm finally ready to answer it.

Being a teacher isn't what it was for my mother when she started teaching 40 years ago. It isn't what it was for the veteran teacher in the classroom next door to mine who started teaching 25 years ago. And though the talking heads of the American political educational movement would like us to believe being a teacher is about testing and making significant academic gains in the classroom, teaching isn't about that either. Teaching is about soul. Yes, soul. Soul like the music, like the food, like creole and the fried chicken in the diners where I grew up. It's soul like a big Italian wedding or a Quinceanera. Teaching is sharing one's soul. Why is it about soul? Because it is about inspiring students to follow in the footsteps of the explorers that chased dreams generations before. If we aren't inspiring our students to learn, what are we doing in front of the classroom each day?

Teaching the technical elements of what children need to know to read or write or perform math are the tools children need to follow their inspiration, but teaching these things is not the soul function of my job nor should it be the bulk of the a day in the classroom.

So while I will quickly admit that my students are woefully behind their peers across America in terms of academics, pounding them with grammar lessons to fix their broken English or hounding them with spelling words and math facts will do nothing to catch them up. They need to be inspired to learn and we, as a culture, have greatly underestimated the power of being inspired. If we empower our children with soul, they will have something to live for, they will have something to look into the future and hold dear.

In communities like the one I teach in that have a graduation rate of 50 percent and most of the young men circle through the revolve jailhouse door, there is little inherent inspiration to thrive and be successful. However, instead of looking at the core of the problem, the seeds of doubt and low self-esteem that grow and grow in our low income communities we chose to fix our educational woes with test and curriculum. Why? Because it is easier and we want an instant fix. We are a results driven culture and if we don't see immediate change we don't think our tools are working.

Any society that chooses to empower their citizens, arming them with inspiration and encouraging soulful expression will produce the next great generation of citizens.

Our misunderstanding around the importance of soul has demoralized our educational system and forced teachers and students to a grinding hell of academics and testing. That's not an education, nor is it a job worth doing.

If we truly want to repair childhood and restore education we must look to inspire our teachers and our students. We need to restore the soul of humanity in each classroom.