A few weeks back, I had the chance to see what extraordinary teaching looks like. I wasn’t in a classroom, and the new school year had yet to begin. And though I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the principles and practices needed to cultivate empathy, in that moment, truthfully, I was thinking about dinner.
I had just come out of a gathering comprised of progressive educators from across the country, who had set out to produce able problem-solvers and team players, rather than kids capable of regurgitating facts on multiple-choice tests.
That night, I went to dinner with Jenerra Williams, who teaches first and second grades at the Mission Hill School, a low-income school in inner-city Boston. Jenerra happened to be flying out later than the rest, so the two of us found ourselves at Ray’s Hell Burger, one of DC’s greatest burger joints and a favorite of the Obama's. It had been a really long day.
“Queen Latifah died!” we overhead the young woman behind the cash register exclaim to her friend as we approached to pay for dinner.
“What??” exclaimed a shocked Jenerra. With a laugh, the girl explained that she was referring to the movie, The Secret Life of Bees.
“Great movie,” Jenerra said, “but an even better book. Have you read it?”
“Oh, I hate to read,” the girl replied.
Jenerra asked whether she should order fries or coleslaw; the girl enthusiastically endorsed the fries, and Jenerra ordered accordingly.
“Great, you take the fries; I’ll read the book,” the cashier offered. And there, the playful conversation could have ended.
Forty-five minutes later, we were sitting at the table, and the girl walked by, busing the table next to ours. Jenerra stopped her. “Hey, those were some really great fries.”
And here’s where my infatuation with my bleu cheese burger took a momentary pause. Jenerra reminded the young lady of her offer to read the book. Then she asked, “Would you mind writing down your address for me? A promise is a promise: I’m going to mail you that book.”
Jenerra wrote down her cell phone number and email address and told her to call if she hadn’t received the book in a week. She asked her how old she was and what interested her. It turned out she was 17, about to head into her senior year of high school. She was currently studying for the SAT’s and had dreams of hosting her own radio talk-show one day.
“I can see you’ve got real poise,” Jenerra said, “and you can absolutely get there. But here’s the thing: you have to start reading. You have to know about the world. Talk show hosts are incredibly informed: it takes knowing yourself and having an opinion about what’s happening in the world.”
We spoke for a little while longer, though the whole exchange couldn’t have lasted more than three or four minutes.
And suddenly, what could have passed for casual banter, with no expectation of follow-through, became something else entirely: a lesson about the kindness of strangers, about the everyday opportunities we have to change a worldview, or to offer a word of encouragement.
Great teachers do not stop teaching at 3pm. They do not stop teaching when kids are let out for summer break. Their teaching doesn't even stop at the walls of their schools. Their lessons in empathy, communication, and human understanding are not confined to classrooms, or a particular 45-minute window on a particular day of the week.
Imagine if all of us saw the world through the eyes of a great teacher and seized every opportunity afforded to us to act as changemaker-makers.
Sure, changing the face of education as we know it may seem an enormous task. Many would raise an eyebrow at the idea that, amidst so many competing priorities, schools of every stripe could place human understanding and empathy at their core. But when you peel back everything having to do with school budgets, and onerous standards, and already packed schooldays, you realize that what we’re left with are everyday moments: the passing exchanges that can awaken a young person's sense of wonder, have her think about people and circumstances different from her own, and instantly instill a belief that she can do anything.
The book arrived within the week.