Clare Okyere is currently the Teacher on Assignment at Herrera School for the Fine Arts and Dual Language, prior to which she served as a fifth grade teacher in the same school for five years. During the past few years Clare oversaw the Teacher Assistance Team at her school to ensure teachers were supported and well informed in implementing the Response to Intervention framework to better meet the needs of all students. Clare was recently selected as a grant recipient for a fully funded Master’s program based on her leadership skills in her school district. She began her coursework this summer in Educational Administration & Supervision in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In addition to her work and studies Clare is also a co-founder of Twenty-Nine Eleven Productions, a publishing company through which Clare has served as a book editor and more recently published her first children’s book Bluebird, Bluebird. While Clare’s roles have shifted over the past few years, her commitment to serving all students with high standards remains constant.
I was recently asked a simple enough question, What is the role of the teacher? Initially, I thought, That’s easy enough. That’s who I am. It’s at my core. Of course I can answer that question.
But then, I started reflecting, like teachers are prone to do, and that seemingly simple question became much more complex. My role was constantly changing through my experiences as a teacher. For instance, when I was still in college the role of the teacher meant we focused on pedagogy—how to teach the children. I was prepared to go into my first job and rise to the challenge of teaching students to use inquiry to learn the secrets of simple machines, to use questioning to create mathematical conjectures, and to facilitate literature studies that would allow children to “read the world.” When I became a full time teacher the reality of a classroom context dramatically stretched my understanding of my role. My focus on pedagogy was not enough to meet the demands of teaching. Thirty students with different life histories, cultures, languages, educational strengths and struggles, family dynamics, reading levels, attendance patterns, socioeconomics, and more entered the classroom. In order to meet their needs I had to reconsider my role.
In fact, give me a multiple choice question, and I’d probably think my way into getting it wrong.
Question: What is the role of the teacher?
Well, yeah, but what about parent, and nurse, and mentor, and disciplinarian, and on and on and on. You know as well as I do that the role of the teacher is not something that can be so easily defined.
So, I kept reflecting and my journey took me to the one person who had the single greatest influence on shaping my views on the role and power of the teacher. It wasn’t a parent or a grandparent. It wasn’t even a teacher from my own childhood. The person who most impacted my beliefs on the role of the teacher was a ten-year-old, and his name was Jeremy.
Jeremy was a student I was blessed enough to have early on in my teaching career. It was the first lesson of the first day of the school year in my fifth grade classroom, and the students were responding to a book we had just read. Like a good new teacher, I was walking around the room making sure the students were on task. Everyone was writing, except Jeremy.
So, what is the role of the teacher?
Cheerleader: “C’mon, Jeremy! You can do it! Let’s get started.”
The next role?
Timekeeper: “Jeremy, it’s been seven minutes, and you still don’t have a thing written down.”
I tried bribery, peer pressure, encouragement…the pencil did not move. Finally, I gave up all of these roles I thought a teacher needed to take on and surprised myself by what came out—the truth.
“Jeremy, if you don’t do something, I have no idea how I’m supposed to help you.”
He glared at me, then picked up his pencil and wrote for the next twelve minutes straight. At the end of the lesson, he had written his name, complete with a backwards e, and half of the book’s title. That’s it. In twelve minutes. The font was an inch tall.
A knot of anger formed in my throat. How could a child pass through a system and make it to fifth grade at this level? At that point I could have made sense of the situation by repeating excuses I had heard before—poverty, difficult family circumstances, language issues, truancy, lack of motivation—but at that moment it didn’t really matter. Jeremy had done what I had asked of him; he had done something. Now, it was my turn to keep my end of the bargain. I had to figure out what I could do to help him. That was my role as a teacher, and to be honest, I had no idea where to start.
Thankfully, the teacher is also a collaborator, so I went to one of our amazing primary teachers. She let me borrow some materials, and gave me a few tips on teaching kids how to read. Jeremy and I started working one-on-one each and every day.
I remember one day we were working with the alphabet and I was introduced to this infamous letter that some of you kindergarten teachers have met before – “Ellemeno.” I wish I had a video of that conversation, because I don’t know whose face looked more baffled. Mine, when I realized that Jeremy really thought “Ellemeno” was a letter or his, when I told him that it wasn’t.
“Jeremy,” I said, “it’s not ‘ellemeno.’ It’s L-M-N-O. It’s four separate letters.”
He just stared at me, letting it soak in, and then blurted, “How come nobody ever told me that before?” It was my turn to be silent, because I had no good answer.
We continued working daily. His math was taking off, but his reading was still years behind grade level. He was assessed to determine if he had a reading disability and qualified for an individualized education program (IEP) with reading services. That didn’t, however, dissolve me of my responsibility. We continued to work together, now joined by an amazing special education teacher. By the time our state assessments came around, I was hopeful that he could pass the math test, especially since he would receive reading accommodations, and I knew his reading score would improve quite a bit.
Jeremy worked so hard on the test, taking two to three hours on each section.
When the scores came in, his was the first I looked for. My eyes quickly moved down my class report for Jeremy’s name, then across to Math—Meets. I knew he could do it! What I saw next, however, almost made me faint. My eyes moved across to the next section—Reading. Right there at the intersection of Jeremy’s name and Reading was the word Meets. I was in awe.
Jeremy taught me that his learning disability did not define who he was nor was it a free pass for me as a teacher. He had the right to receive the instruction he needed to succeed academically. He taught me that if we hold high academic expectations for all students and provide them with the time and resources to support them, they will not just meet our expectations, but exceed them.
That year with Jeremy was a year of becoming not only for Jeremy as a learner but for me as a teacher. Jeremy’s evolving identity as a learner was accompanied by my evolving understanding of my role as a teacher. I reflected on the immense power attached to the role of teachers. We have the power to influence who can and cannot learn, and often our influence is attached to beliefs about certain groups of people. What power, and consequently, what responsibility. It is our role to ensure their futures are not limited by excuses, by assumptions, or by stereotypes. Together, we must give them the academic, the social, and the emotional foundation necessary to guarantee their futures are dictated not by their backgrounds or social status but by their own hopes and dreams.
In short, what is the role of the teacher? It is to change ourselves—the beliefs and stereotypes that rationalize why Jeremy can’t read and write, that convince us that Jeremy is another teacher’s responsibility, that set low expectations for Jeremy and high expectations for others—so that we can expect every Jeremy that walks through the door to achieve and succeed. Changing our own beliefs about learning and students will in turn change the world for students like Jeremy.