How a tumultuous political climate makes teaching more important than ever
By Olivia King
Three years ago, when I told people that I would be attending Boston University to study education, I was often met with the response, “You’re going there just to become a teacher?” One person told me that becoming just a teacher would be a waste of my intelligence — which I’m sure was intended as a compliment, albeit a bizarre one. It’s annoying at best and insulting at worst to be told that my chosen career is unworthy. My response: The politicians and CEOs may run the world, but they wouldn’t be where they are today without the people who made the choice to become educators.
For the past year and a half I've seen the challenges and rewards in my work with middle-school girls in the Brookline-based non-profit MEDIAGIRLS, teaching a ten-week after school program to help them combat sexist media messaging. When I started with MEDIAGIRLS, we put a focus on body image and how unrealistic beauty standards set by the media can impact teen and preteen girls. However, as we grew, we realized that by teaching girls to speak up about the issues that affected them, we could affect greater change. This was a big task. Anyone who was a middle schooler knows how hard it is to challenge the status quo at that age. No 12-year-old girl wants to be stamped as the “Loud-Girl Power Girl.”
A story about “nothing”
So it wasn’t surprising when I walked in on the first day of class at a Boston public school, and one girl told me that our program was the last place she wanted to be. She insisted that I call her “nothing,” as that was the nickname she claimed to prefer. She prefaced all her opinions with, “Well, I don’t think this, but somebody else might.” She continued this for most of the time we were together, always quick to cover up any glimmer of enthusiasm with a sarcastic remark.
Fast forward ten weeks to the end-of-program fair established by our partner Citizen Schools, where students teach back to the community what they have learned. There was “nothing,” standing on a cafeteria table lecturing to a group of middle-school boys about the lack of representation in the beauty industry.
I was proud that she had learned the content of the program. She could throw around the facts and figures we had taught her with ease, and she was putting on a great show. It was clear she had been reached by the message of the program. However, I was proudest that she had found her voice. Not only could she deliver facts and figures, but she delivered them with passion. On life’s grandest stage — the middle-school cafeteria — and to the toughest audience — sixth grade boys — she was able to stand up and say that she cared about something and that she believed she had the power to change a piece of the world. This is a spirit I hope she carries her whole life.
Helping kids discover their voice
Inside and outside the classroom, we teachers have a tremendous amount of influence on our students, who will inevitably become the next generation of adult citizens. That means that when we mentor our students, we are setting the tone for the future. With every kindergartner we teach to be kind, we make the world a better place. Self-control, sharing, perseverance, and backing up your argument with three or more pieces of evidence are all lessons we learn in school that are pretty important in the “real world”. The skills we learn from our teachers extend beyond the standardized tests and final projects. The answer to “When will I ever use this?” isn’t always obvious, but more often than not, it is there.
When we teach students to read, we expose them to the world beyond their own backyard. When we teach them to write, we give them a voice, because the pen can be mightier than the sword. When we teach them math and science, we teach them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers in this rapidly growing scientific and technological world. When we teach them art and music, we teach them to express themselves. When we teach them social studies, we teach them civics and how to be citizens of the world.
As teachers, we are the ones showing up.
Teachers know, probably better than most, that the American public school system is messy and imperfect. We know that teachers are often overworked, underpaid, and under respected.
Yet, we’re still here.
Right now, our world is a weird place to grow up in. It’s a complicated time to be a young person, for some more than others. My job as an educator, in addition to teaching my students how to write the best essays, is to teach them how to find their power, that they matter, and they deserve to have their voices heard.
History has often proven itself to be on the side of young people. The world may resist change, but new ideas usually win out over the old. While even Socrates said that the youth had “bad manners” and “contempt for authority,” showing that condemning the younger generation is not a new pastime, we tend to view reform movements as being youth driven. This is why I think working with young people is so exciting. Teachers get to see the next leaders and the next big ideas before they run the world. This gives me hope because I know that I’m most optimistic about the future when I’m with young people. They are the future and they are great.
Olivia King is a junior at Boston University studying Social Studies Education. She has been a part of the MEDIAGIRLS team since the fall of 2015 and is currently teaching her fourth MEDIAGIRLS class at the Joseph Browne School in Chelsea. A version of this speech was delivered at BU’s School of Education Junior Pinning Ceremony earlier this year.