By Ashly Moore Sheldon • May 22, 2019
As we head into graduation season, it's a great time to celebrate educators. A former teacher myself, I know firsthand that it is one of the hardest jobs out there. I bailed out after two years, realizing that in order to do the job well I would need to sacrifice too much of myself. So I am always amazed by the teachers who make it work, often going the extra mile to help their students succeed. Here are five stories about exceptional educators who wouldn't give up, even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
In 1969, Conroy took a job teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on an impoverished island just off the coast of South Carolina. Featuring Conroy's signature lush prose, this account of his experience transports the reader into the isolated and desperate world he encountered in this largely black and segregated community. Many of his students, grades 5–8, couldn't recite the alphabet, let alone read. A consummate storyteller, Conroy paints a vivid portrait, depicting both the beauty and the hopelessness of this place in time and offering a compelling narrative of his efforts to enact change for kids who had been discarded by society.
Torey Hayden has written a handful of books about her work as a special education teacher during the 1970s in Montana. Many of her students were identified as "emotionally disturbed" but her self-contained classrooms often consisted of students with a wide variety of debilitating issues from physical disabilities to depression to autism. Hayden writes about these kids with tremendous empathy. It is clear that she is a gifted and compassionate teacher and that her students feel understood by her in a way that they haven't before. In One Child, her class is known as the "garbage class" because they are the kids that no one else can deal with. Then she receives a midyear addition to her already full roster. Six-year-old Sheila has been abandoned and abused. Nonverbal and unreachable, she has committed a terrible act of violence against another child. Her placement in Hayden's class is meant to be a stopgap until a spot opens up for her at the state mental hospital. She is viewed as a lost cause, until Hayden manages to break through her angry shell to find the wounded and brilliant child within.
Canada, who grew up in the Bronx, was the first in his family to go to college. He knows, firsthand, the links between education and personal success. But after years of working to level the playing field in Harlem schools, he decided that the system was broken and needed a complete overhaul. His students, often born into poverty, faced an uphill battle, lacking the early childhood support and learning that their more privileged peers received. This book, written by New York Times reporter Paul Tough describes Canada's work to create the Harlem Children's Zone, a comprehensive system offering social, medical and educational services to thousands of children in a 97-block neighborhood of Harlem. Tough explains that the system is "designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods."
As a respected journalist, Baldacci often wrote about problems in Chicago's troubled public schools. So she surprised many when, in 1999, she left her prestigious position, taking a two-thirds pay cut to work as a grade school teacher in one of Chicago's roughest South Side neighborhoods. As she later commented, "I thought I knew rough. I thought I had answers. I didn't know jack." Baldacci writes about her first two years on the job, dealing with crowded classrooms, crumbling buildings, and indifferent administrators. When asked by a fellow teacher why she'd decided to teach, she said, "Because a voice called and I answered."
Educator and activist Kozol has long been recognized as a clear-headed observer on the challenges faced by public school systems. This book cleverly weaves his considerable experience and wisdom into a series of 16 letters written to "Francesca" a first-grade teacher in inner-city Boston. Often Francesca's experience seems to echo Kozol's own experience, described in his memoir, Death at an Early Age, published 40 years earlier. But this fresh take on the story offers a sage and optimistic perspective from someone who has dedicated his life to educational reform. He also presents some bold statements about what he thinks needs to change.
These are extraordinary stories about educators facing impossible odds and tackling larger-than-life challenges. But I bet many of us have stories of teachers who changed our lives in small, yet significant, ways. For me, there was Mr. Wilson, who gave me the confidence to write my truth. And Ms. Hernandez, who actually managed to make this math-hating student enjoy algebra (...trigonometry was another story). In any case, writing this has reminded me of the importance these moments played in my life. I'm thinking I might just try to track down a few of my former teachers and thank them!