How teachers can change the world.

I had the good fortune to hear Bryan Stevenson speak last night. He is a lawyer who fights for the rights of death row inmates and is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

I enjoyed the talk. Mr. Stevenson is a riveting orator and masterful storyteller. His message was direct and fervent and inspiring. We must “change the world,” he said, by

  • being proximate: getting close to people in need.
  • changing the narrative: paying attention to the unconscious, unchallenged stories we tell about ourselves and others that we unthinkingly enact to everyone’s detriment.
  • having hope: because despair will get us precisely nowhere.
  • being willing to be uncomfortable: to do what is right, to buck the narrative, often means to find oneself alone or uncertain or in pain. BUT to stay comfortable is to promote what is unjust.

He had another message, one that haunts me this morning and got me out of bed way too early:

We are all broken.

This man, who tries to question a 10-year-old who has been in jail for three days after having accidentally killed his mother’s alcoholic and chronically, violently abusive boyfriend and discovers that the boy has been repeatedly raped in jail; this man, who is black, who has to put up with a sadistic prison guard who purposely points out that the truck he drives is plastered with Confederate flags and the bumper sticker “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own cotton”; this man, who deals every day with human cruelty, both in society at large and specifically in our appalling criminal justice system: This man says that what keeps him going is the realization that “I am broken too.”

As we all are. Some of us have basic psychic fractures from our upbringings; some of us are scarred by trauma; some of us simply read the news every day and feel our hearts break anew. I couldn’t sleep this morning for thinking about all the broken people in the world.

But quickly! Back to Mr. Stevenson’s message! And let us turn our thoughts, inevitably, to teachers.

Just like Mr. Stevenson, teachers are in a position to change the world. They are proximate to people in need, to students who are broken. They are caught in a nest of narratives, from the one that insists learning can be standardized and tested to the one that puts students in desks in rows in classes that meet for 44 minutes each day to the one that justifies disproportionately punishing students who have dark skin to the one that constantly questions teachers’ professionalism and personal instincts about what their students need and favors control over trust. Changing any of those narratives (and others) would offer teachers the opportunity to become uncomfortable. And, if they’re lucky, teachers have hope.

But teachers are broken too. And broken people, especially broken people in positions of relative power, can be cruel, or thoughtless, or self-protective, or unconscious in their clinging to comfort. How ¬†how HOW can teachers be empowered and supported in transcending their own brokenness — their own psychic fractures, their own experiences of trauma, their own overwhelmedness and hopelessness and frustration and burnout — so they can help every broken student grow, develop — and heal?

The answer, for me, is that teachers need caring support. They need official acknowledgment that their jobs as developmental partners to broken people are extremely difficult, both deeply rewarding and grindingly wearing. They need to see how their own brokenness fits with and, at times, reinforces that of their students. They need help healing themselves so they can teach others.

In the field of education, changing the world these days is more than just doing a bang-up job of teaching content or delivering SEL curriculum to students. Changing the world must begin with the self, must begin with each of us committing to the ongoing task of healing our own brokenness and then committing to being the very best person we can possibly be — devoted to truth-telling, to disrupting oppressive narratives, to welcoming discomfort in the service of accurate seeing and faithful connection — in relationships with others. This work is indeed uncomfortable, and it is absolutely essential. As Mr. Stevenson would say, it is “brave brave BRAVE.”