Why We Teach “Those People”


A recent Seth Godin blog post entitled Those People caught my attention last week. He writes, “At a recent seminar, a woman who helps run a community college stood up to ask a question.” (I would love to know what the question actually was).

Seth Godin

“Well, the bad news,” she said, “is that we have to let everyone in. And the truth is, many of these kids just can’t be the leaders you’re describing, can’t make art. We need people to do manual work, and it’s those people.”

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In his response Godin comments, “When those that we’ve chosen to teach and lead write off people because of what they look like or where they live or who their parents are, it’s a tragedy.”

Godin’s observation, in addition to more education and pre-K rhetoric coming from President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week got me thinking about my own experience as a teacher. The generalized, “can’t be leaders you’re describing, can’t make art” comment reminded me of a personal Why I Teach moment where if I hadn’t cared as an educator, I too would have quickly labeled many of my students as damaged goods or those people.

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A few years ago I was a full-time dance specialist teaching at an elementary arts magnet school as part of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. The school was located within an inner-city public housing neighborhood. The majority of the students had very little parental support, were on reduced free lunch and living in poverty.

In one of my third grade dance classes I had a student, Shakira, who from day one was nothing but trouble. She was tall and lanky with unkempt hair and giant angry eyes. Her arms were always folded tightly across her chest in a don’t-mess-with-me protective stance. She had a mouth so foul no young girl her age should ever have.

I recognized unless I figured out a creative way to connect directly with this child, my classroom would constantly be disrupted by her outbursts and inappropriate behavior. Shakira was going to be a disaster if I let her, and for about five months, she gave me nothing but hell. Teachers face this all too familiar scenario with students all the time. The experience can either make or break a teacher.

I would learn that she had been held back a few grades during her short time in elementary school. She was a fifth grader stuck in a third grade classroom – a crucial time in which a child awkwardly develops mentally, emotionally, physically and socially. Like many children in the US, she had quickly and so easily become a product of the system, one of those people who gets passed along year after year. It didn’t seem like too many people cared about Shakira.

The Failing Grade of School Nutrition
The Failing Grade of School Nutrition

On breakfast duty one morning, while contemplating gouging my eyes out with plastic forks, Shakira begged me for a second breakfast. (Don’t get me started on school “food.” The lack of any identifiable nutrition available to our kids is yet another example of how easily we set them up for failure and obesity. At least the conversation is beginning to shift with help from First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and cooking experts like Jamie Oliver).

When I asked Shakira why she needed another breakfast, she explained that many days when she got home from school there wasn’t any food. The school meals she received each day were the only two times she was fed. Shakira is not alone. According to Feeding America 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. Never had I given this any thought before. Shakira was not only being neglected at home – by what should have been responsible, caring adults – this child was truly starving.

I immediately found Shakira a second breakfast. She smiled and wrapped her arms around my waist when I arrived with a tray. It was the first time this hellion of a little girl ever showed me any act of kindness. I realized there was no reason to fear this child and I did everything to hold back tears.

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After the breakfast epiphany, there were still behavioral issues but Shakira began to soften in my dance classroom. She became less disruptive, participated more frequently in class activities and positively interacted with her classmates. Around late January or February I finally found something dance related that would catch her undivided attention – Pirouettes!

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Dance Education Snapshot
Dance Education Snapshot

Shakira loved turning and practicing her pirouettes in class. “Again, again!” she would squeal finding any possible opportunity outside of class, at recess, in the hallway and after school for me to watch and critique her progress. Through dance, Shakira was starting to demonstrate self-confidence, self-worth and a greater understanding of how to be part of a team working kindly with her fellow classmates. You know, like developing leadership skills?

As a reward for her efforts, I placed Shakira front and center during the warm-up portion of dance class. I explained how her leadership and interest in perfecting her turns had been an inspiration to me and to her classmates. Being up front required a certain level of responsibility and she took this new role quite seriously. When it came time for the third grade student performance, she shined on stage.

During bus dismissal duty later that day Shakira came running over to me beaming with a giant smile on her face. “He came, Ms. Wilt!” she exclaimed. “He was there! My Daddy, he was sitting in the front row and he watched me do my pirouettes! He never comes to anything, but today he was there.” Wow. Just like that, after months of pain staking anguish, Shakira and I were able to experience this amazing moment together. Complete happiness.

A Teaching Moment at Dance Theatre of Harlem
A Teaching Moment: PS153 Students
at Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo by Joseph Rodman

You can’t read this story without immediately understanding the importance of compassionate, dedicated and disciplined teaching. Nor can you underestimate the powerful impact and life-lasting value arts education can provide for a child, especially one in great need.

My story of Shakira is one of many experiences I’ve had working with troubled kids over the years. Often, when there’s no more patience left, no persistence, no support from the system or any more energy to deal with what seems like endless challenges in the classroom, teachers decide to leave. For those who stick with the program, it’s fleeting moments like Shakira that end up being the “why,” the dangling carrot that keeps a teacher going.

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(Side note: Learning Matters a PBS News Hour educational reporting segment has a Why I Teach submission request for the website’s blog. I thought Why do you teach? And, why do you stay? by Courtney Hanes is another thorough account of what teachers face today).

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