I’ll be teaching a course for future elementary teachers this Fall (2021) at the University of Wyoming. It’s a freshman course, so most students will be coming off of their high school experience from the past two years. As such, I’d like to give an address to them and all college students, current and future, who are interested in becoming teachers. The address is probably a bit premature, but nevertheless, here is my address to them.
To the Classes of future teachers of 2024 and 2025,
Congratulations. You did it. No, not graduating. You did that; but you were always going to do that.
No, I’m congratulating you for something else: not yielding to cynicism. You’ve decided to become teachers during one of the most tumultuous times to be a teacher in the United States.
In 2020 and 2021, when you made that choice to entire college to be a teacher, you were coming straight off two of the worst years for education in the U.S. and around the world. In 2020, many of you went home from school for Spring Break and never returned. You spent the last three months of your senior year wondering if you’d ever see your class or classmates again. You probably didn’t see most of them in person again. Your graduation, if you can call it that, occurred on a screen. You missed out on the community and euphoria of a graduation. If you threw your graduation caps in the air, it was in the privacy of your bedroom. Your teachers at the time, despite their best efforts, didn’t know what the hell they were doing. None of them had ever taught this way before. None of you had ever learned that way before. It was a mess. Thankfully, most of you had your grades frozen in time.
The juniors at this time – the graduating class of 2021 – went into the following year with more of an understanding of what was happening to them and their schooling, yet it was only marginally less chaotic. You were in school, you were remote, you were hybrid, you could play sports, you couldn’t participate in choir. Things were all over the place. The good news is you were able to contract Senioritis very early on and no one disparaged you for it.
The classes of 2020 and 2021 experienced the absolute worst that America has to offer. We closed schools but kept liquor stores open. We pushed restaurants to open prematurely while your teachers instructed you in a way that they knew wasn’t ideal. Politicians used the school-shuttering pandemic to make names for themselves, rather than refit your schools with better ventilation systems. America failed you in its response to the pandemic. We failed to prioritize our youth, it’s future. And yet, you are here.
You also experienced what appeared to be the fractures of the country itself. You witnessed first hand via social media the death of a man who ran out of oxygen because his windpipe had a knee on it. You saw an elderly gentleman who was peacefully protesting knocked to the ground while blood leaked from his skull. You saw this in near real time. We all saw this. Yet…. and yet…..
Yet you entered college and made the decision to become teachers. Despite experiencing the worst of American education and America itself, you chose to plunge yourself into a career that by its very nature will define the future of a country that let you down years ago. I don’t know how you did it. How did you remain invested in the future? How did you keep your optimism?
How did you retain your hope?
Was it the bonds that you built during the tumultuous times? Was it a younger sibling that sparked your interest in the future? Was it a teacher that reached out over cyberspace to ensure you had enough to eat, enough to learn?
What was it that kept you invested in our American project?
Many of your elders failed to remain invested. Rather than building bridges across generations, your elders – my generation – retreated, becoming more and more insular. Rather than trying to grow our ideas, we shrank them, becoming more tribal, more cynical. We become less interested in our American and Global community. And yet you emerged from that morass to become a teacher, a most communal profession.
You went straight from a miserable year of remote learning to becoming the crafter of learning.
And I have no doubt you’ll do a much better job than we did. You’ve seen the mistakes we made. As juniors and seniors in high school you experienced teachers fumbling around in the dark. And you’ll do better. You’ll take what you experienced and make sure that the worst of it never happens again. You’ll take the successes you experienced and spin them forward into even greater success. Whether you’re teaching kids face to face or over cyberspace, you’ll draw on those experiences.
Your generation of teachers will be a corrective to our generation of policymakers who made it harder and harder to fund and support schools.
Your generation, specifically those graduating into the teaching profession in 2024 and 2025, has a perspective like no other generation.
You and your fellow generation of teachers are, by nature of your experience, resilient, positive minded, creative, emotionally intelligent, self-starting, brilliant, and deeply empathetic. I’m in awe of you.
I applaud you for not giving into the cynicism that befell you in 2020 and 2021. Your presence here gives me hope that there is a world to come that’s better than the one we left you. Welcome to the teaching profession, which will get better and better every year you are a part of it.