Recently, photography blog Humans of New York (HONY) featured a student from a disadvantaged school in Brooklyn, NY.
In case you missed it, Vidal, his principal Ms. Lopez, and school Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA), became global superstars in a matter of hours due, in no small part, to Vidal’s lauding of his principal Ms. Lopez.
“When we get in trouble, she calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
The coverage of the multiple challenges faced at MHBA subsequently led to a crowdsourcing campaign that, at the time of writing, raised over one million dollars. This money would fund programs and scholarships for MHBA’s ‘scholars’. I was heartened by the long-term plan and vision for the school being championed by the school’s administrators.
HONY went on to feature portraits of other scholars and educators at MHBA. One educator was a short, beaming woman who moved to the United States from Nigeria to continue her teaching career. It was her message that resonated the strongest with me.
“Most of my students in Nigeria had no shoes, no clothes, no food. […] But they wanted to learn. They showed up every day wanting to learn. […] My classrooms in America were much different than my classrooms in Nigeria. There were fewer students, more resources, but there was not the same desire to learn.”
Arguably, the importance of education as a means to changing one’s opportunities is widely valued in developing countries. By far my biggest challenge as a teacher in a disadvantaged context is for students in our community to value their education and understand their education is a privilege as much as it’s their right.
At my school, many students who come from farming or trade families genuinely want to follow in their parent’s footsteps. And why shouldn’t they?
Society doesn’t disapprove of a teacher, accountant, nurse, business owner or lawyer following their family tradition. But it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge class stratification in Australia that clearly exists as we invalidate that work by assuming they must want to ‘make more’ of their lives.
Let me be clear; I understand we live in a world that is changing.
A world where you can’t leave school at 15 and be likely to land a good apprenticeship.
A world where farming practices are not stable and your produce will not be guaranteed a local market.
Frankly, my intention is not to get all my students to university. Some of my students totally baulk at the idea. They’re certainly capable, but going to university isn’t their idea of the pinnacle of life achievement, despite the studies citing university graduates are earning more money over their lifetimes.
I want my students to be thinking people. Caring people. People with resources to make sense of and question the world around them, whether they farm, install air conditioning or look after the aged.
They struggle to engage and value the big picture if they take their education for granted. Overwhelmingly, they devalue education and disrespect it as their entitlement.
As the teacher from Nigeria noted, in developed countries it would often appear our students forget education is a privilege, in addition to their right.
So I ask: how do we foster recognition of the benefit of education while respecting the lay of the land in the communities we work in?