Letter From A Teacher On MLK Day

About Mike Dunn

Mike has been working to build strong connections between students and communities in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we build our personal and institutional educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the Director of College Counseling at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia.

ORGANICMy Dear Fellow Colleagues, Critics, Politicians, and Aspiring Professionals:

While I am happily undertaking the responsibilities of influencing the lives of young people, I have come across many comments, news articles, blog entries, and other choice pieces of  that my choice of profession are “unwise and untimely.” While all of these pieces are of serious concern, I have not taken time to address each, as my responses would take me away from the true mission of my work. But, in the spirit of those who inspire me, and knowing that this commentary is in good faith with an eye on the future of our young people, I wish to take a moment to address the notion of my choice as “unwise and untimely.”

I shall begin by presenting my path to teaching. I have been honored to be a formal classroom teacher for the past eight years, but my journey started long before this time. I have had ties to teaching since a speech contest in the 4th grade in which I put forth my regard for those who had led my classrooms to that day, and submitted my desire to seek employment as one of these inspirational individuals. During these early days, I was invited by the profession, and have consented to this call to be the most outstanding professional I can be.

More plainly, I have chosen to be a teacher not because of the summers off, the holiday/snowday closings, the challenge of intellectually stimulating lesson planning, or the respectability this field presents to its practitioners. Indeed, I have felt called to be a teacher because of my deep-rooted philosophy that learning can inspire young people to change the world. Like those before me who have worked tirelessly to improve their communities and the lives of the people around them, so am I compelled to carry the message of the transformational learning beyond my own perception and into the vistas of the young people I see everyday.

Like many community activists, I am well aware of the interconnectedness of communities, states, humans, and our increasingly flat world. With this in mind, I cannot sit idly by to watch the communities around my degrade into poverty stricken, crime riddled, famine laden cesspools of lost individuals. Inevitably, whatever affects one community invariably affects another. Regardless of my physical and mental distance from these issues, they will catch up to me. I cannot rest with the narrow view that the problems of others have no consequences for my life and my well-being. Our network of mutuality is only gaining strength.

Many of you deplore the statements of teachers speaking out for their profession. You snicker, and put forth notions that teachers are overpaid, receive too many benefits, and that teaching is a cushy job. But, your statements, I am sorry to say, do not address the deeper issues that teaching is attempting to address. I am sure that none of you would rest upon your superficial conclusions if you joined a teacher for a day in New Orleans, or North Philadelphia, or Rapid City, North Dakota, or Washington DC.

The struggling record of teachers is well know. It is publicized in the news nearly every day. Teaching is under fire. For the past ten or more years, there have been very few professions that have received the negative coverage teaching has become closely associated with. This has made my choice of profession also a choice of enduring philosophy. Each time I read another headline, or hear a negative clip on the news, my steadfast commitment comes into question. The idea of my seemingly “unwise” choice to be a teacher is put right in front of my eyes and I am forced to reflect on my career path with careful scrutiny.

In this reflection is where I remember that very few good-faith efforts have been put forth to address the underlying issues of the teaching profession. Only a select few on the macrolevel have taken the time to examine the plight of schools and carefully craft their arguments and plans for change. Others have left themselves to merely scrutinize. To sit back on their laurels and naysay what they do not truly understand.

Within this toxic environment lies my choice: To continue as a teacher despite the naysayers, scrutinizers, and pundits. To challenge our greater community’s notions of failure through direct-action. Instead of running or shying away from the criticism of my profession, to confront this criticism with professional, transformational, inspiring, and thoughtful learning opportunities for the young people I am serving.

Thus my profession of choice also rests in the heart of choosing to create change now. For more than 150 years, teachers have worked in a field fueled by agrarian ideals, new england grammar school requirements, and sluggish reform. Young people have gone home after days in school proclaiming their boredom, and an overall barely existent tolerance of their day. To this point, I say that those of us who chose to be teachers have a moral responsibility to create change in our antiquated system. If not for our own intellectual and personal well-being, but the well-being of the young people who are being subjected to a compulsory 1,000 hours per year of schooling.

There are some who will, doubtless, call my choice as one of “rabble rousing” or “agitating”, others who are so drained from years of push back that they simply wish to uphold the status quo. I stand here between these two opposing forces, between the claims of extremist reform and complacency. I stand here, an advocate through action, to demonstrate that thoughtful work can lead to thoughtful change. That professionalism begets professionalism, and committed, passionate teachers beget committed, passionate reform.

As aspiring teachers begin to discern their journey to this great profession, I implore you to reflect upon your values and ask why you so desire to become a teacher. It is certainly a profession with its trials, its disappointments, its scrutiny, its responsibilities. But, there are thousands of us who have courageously taken up this yolk of circumstance not for the summers off, but for conscience sake. You must be aware of the tribulations of teaching — it is certainly not for everyone, but if you so choose to embark up a life in the classroom, your feet may be tired, but your spirit will be at rest.

While I sit here and recognize my choice to be a teacher as possibly “unwise and untimely”, I sing great praise to all teachers who have committed to their craft. In the midst of great provocation, you have remained steadfast in your search to influence the lives of young people and thereby change the future of our society. Facing jeering and hostile criticism, you have recognized the transformation that must come from our next generation of young people. You have invested in our future, the American Dream, and the sacred democratic values of our society.

I hope this letter finds you inspired on this great day of service through the actions and writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail

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About the Author:

Mike has been working to build strong connections between students and communities in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we build our personal and institutional educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the Director of College Counseling at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia.

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