I spend my days trying to give the next generation the tools they need to be critical thinkers and competent leaders, but I don’t tell them everything. I don’t tell them my real age (when they ask, I say I’m 58) and I don’t tell them what I think about political issues. I have a tendency to push them to confront the difficult questions that society faces, so they frequently try to get me to chime in. I’ll explain the arguments for various perspectives but I never give my own. I tell them that I want to create an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their own opinion without thinking that I’ll be disappointed in their thought process and that I want them to develop their own beliefs instead of taking on mine.
Though I keep my own politics out of my classroom, my politics are inspired by what I see in my classroom. They probably don’t know it, but my kids make me feel more compelled to work for change.
There’s a lot about my job that I don’t love. There’s too much paperwork, unpaid overtime, the salary isn’t great, and I have to watch and worry every time the General Assembly is in session. But, after everything else, it is my job to improve the lives of the kids in front of me, and that’s pretty exciting.
The kids in my classroom might become our doctors and lawyers. They could be our police force, our scientists, our leaders. They might protect us in the military or serve us at the corner store. Whatever they become, they will be our future. The lessons I give them, the tangents I go on, the activities I set up for them will shape their cognitive abilities as they make the decisions that build our future.
As an educator, you come to realize that your job is actually bigger than your classroom. You’re not just serving the kids in front of you. You’re serving more than their families. You are providing a service for every individual that child will ever interact with. To be an educator is to be a part of the betterment of society as a whole.
It isn’t difficult to romanticize my job, especially when you’re as long-winded as I am. However, I’ve found that politics can get in the way of the romantic parts of education.
We have this wonderful idea of education as a great equalizer. When a student tells me that they want to become a marine biologist I should be able to assure them that if they work hard and focus on their studies, they will be able to reach their goals. We accept that not everyone will be able to have the jobs they wanted as kids, but believe that those who are committed, work hard and demonstrate ability should be able to find success. We believe in and preach equal opportunity for all, knowing that this isn’t the reality.
We know that our poor kids won’t become entrepreneurs because they don’t have anyone to support them financially while they take an economic risk. We know that our kids who have health problems with incur mounds of medical debt that they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives paying down. We know that many of our kids will get accepted into colleges they can’t afford and will be less likely to meet their full potential – and those who go to those schools anyway in the search of something greater will be burdened by student loans for most of their adulthood. We know that many of our kids will be held back due to their race, gender, orientation or identity. We know that all of our kids will be facing a difficult job market that asks them to do more for less.
We know that – for many reasons – the children we’re working every day to build up may be unfairly held back. We can see decisions being made in DC and in statehouses around the country that help to create this unfair reality. We see it personally, every year, as the great equalizer is attacked from all sides.
Education, this tool meant to give everyone the chance to be great, is being torn apart by our lawmakers. Here in North Carolina, they’ve gotten rid of teacher tenure, they no longer pay more for teachers with Masters Degrees, they’ve cut back on per pupil spending, and they’re taking away retirement benefits for beginning teachers (I’m one of those). They’re giving up on our public schools, enacting a voucher program that uses public money to send children to private schools instead. My profession is no longer valued in my state. The numbers of people studying to be a teacher in NC are way down – and it’s easy to see why.
As I said before, to be an educator is to be a part of the betterment of society as a whole. Our lawmakers are attacking us personally; but the consequences are larger than just us and the stakes are higher than our classrooms.
As educators, it is our job to fight for the futures of our children. That means that – yes – we must fight against policies that hurt our kids in our classrooms. However, if we truly believe in equal opportunity for everyone, we must also fight against policies that hurt our kids when they’re outside our classrooms.
I don’t share my political opinions with my kids, but my kids are the heart of my political opinions. When faced with tough questions I ask myself what will give my kids the best chance at being successful. I try to determine which policies give them the greatest opportunities no matter their background. Then I vote, I organize, and now I’m running for office.
I hope that more educators will take it upon themselves to be a part of the political debates that determine the fairness of our students’ lives. Vote, write your lawmaker, share your opinion with your neighbors, donate, support good candidates and become good candidates! Our profession and their future depend upon it.
Uriah Ward is a Middle School Social Studies Teacher and a Candidate for Greenville City Council.