I often talk, and write, about how important a profession teaching is. I spend a lot of time reflecting on how meaningful our impact is on our students. It is arguably one of the most significant vocations that exists. With such strong feelings toward education, it might seem like this profession is one that I have always aspired to be a part of. To be honest though, that is not at all true. I can point to the specific person that started me on this incredibly rewarding career path. Now that I am a teacher, I can say with certainty that we don’t always get to see the results of what we do. Many times the lengths we go to for our students remain unnoticed or unrecognized and if they are, it is many years later. Because of this, I want to write a little about my experience with a truly life-changing educator.
My educational experience was a good one. I enjoyed learning and was very motivated by getting good grades. School was a space where I felt success, and the classroom was a place where I was confident in my abilities. This remained true throughout my career as a student, and I am thankful to all those who helped make my learning such a positive experience. There is one teacher, however, who had an impact on me that I did not expect, nor was I really prepared for.
As I entered my senior year of high school, I was just as sure of my academic abilities as I had been in prior years. I had attended the same parochial high school as both my father and uncle, with students from the same few grade schools in our community. I knew all 99 students in my class, was familiar with all of my teachers, and was receiving acceptance letters from colleges. I knew without a doubt exactly what I was going to do with my future. I was going to major in psychology and eventually become a psychologist.
Then I started my senior theology class. Most of our theology, or religion, classes had been a little repetitive. We studied much of the same information each year, but we reviewed it in different ways with different instructors. It’s safe to say that I went into that class with a clear idea of what to expect. My expectations could not have been further from the truth.
My teacher for this class was one that had been at the school for many years. He had both my dad and uncle in class and remembered the last name when I walked in. Thankfully, he didn’t hold their antics against me. His theology class was more current and relevant than any of the previous twelve I had taken. He spoke to legitimate issues in the present world and how they were perceived by different groups of people, including ourselves. He discussed issues that were important to us, his students, and helped us view them in a variety of ways. He helped us to begin looking at the world and our futures as active members of it, not just those who were there to hear about it in theory. He valued our voices, input, and our opinions, but also challenged them to help us grow. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how much I learned in that class, and most of it had little to do with the actual subject.
The project that truly changed me was one entitled The Social Justice Project. The objective, as I see it now, was to assist us in becoming more aware of the issues of injustice that exist and how to play an informed, active role in changing them. In this project, we had to work with a partner to research a social justice issue and create a presentation on it to the class. No stances were to be taken at the outset‒just research of the facts and the implications on society. We would generate and share our thoughts after the research, in addition with how they had evolved throughout the research process. The only requirement was that we needed to be genuinely interested in the topic. My partner and I cycled through a few different ideas, but had trouble settling on one that held our interest. Our teacher then suggested we look into the funding for public education.
At the time, I thought I had absolutely no interest in the topic. I flat out told my teacher that I did not want to find out more on the topic because I did not care about it. His response was that I did, in fact, care about it and that I should get working on finding credible sources. Not one to ever defy a teacher (hah, I don’t even think I know how to do that), we got started. My partner came over and we stayed up one weekend researching how public schools are funded and where discrepancies arise in different school districts.
For someone who did not care about this at all, I sure spent a lot of time and effort on this project. I was up until 2 in the morning reading about school funding, legislative decisions in education, politicians influencing education, trends of demographics and socioeconomic status, discrepancies in urban vs. suburban schools, and more. I couldn’t stop myself. Each time I found another facet of the issue, I would read and become impassioned. This project, which was supposed to be a maximum of 3-4 pages and a 5-7 minute Powerpoint was quickly becoming a short book with a half-hour presentation, complete with graphs, charts, and video testimonials. Never in my educational career had I become so engulfed in a project. Never before had I become, for lack of a better word, obsessed. Thankfully, my partner in this project didn’t think I was too strange, and still remains a good friend of mine today.
It wasn’t until after the presentation (which we reluctantly shortened) that I realized how important education was to me. I reflected on why I had become consumed with the research and so outraged at my findings and was left with the realization that education is the most useful tool any person can have. It has the ability to empower and embolden all those who are equipped with it. It can bring people out from crippling circumstances and into a world full of possibilities. It can open doors to those who previously only saw walls. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I just love that quote, and the sentiment behind it.
I asked my teacher afterwards why he encouraged me to do the project on this particular social justice issue, and his response is one I’ll never forget. He told me, “I knew you would find it interesting.” So simple, and so complex all at once. You may think I’m reading too much into it, but I assure you, I am not. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I’m certain because a few weeks later when I shared with him that I had changed my major to education before even committing to a university, his response was, “I can see you doing this. I knew you would. You’ll be good at it too.”
From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Mr. Herrmann. I wouldn’t be here without you.