Guest blogger: Connor Nowalk, Inaugural Lean Lab Fellow
My Why is a series of Lean Lab stakeholders who we feature as guest bloggers. They describe their "why," or inspiration, for becoming involved in social change and reform. We hope you find similar inspiration in their stories.
One of the unique aspects of America is that we are a nation founded on a promise: if you come here and work hard, you can lead a happy, successful life. Martin Luther King called it a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” which was inscribed in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Like many before and since, my family immigrated here from Ireland and Germany to make good on that promise. More than a century later, America kept that promise to my father; just like my parents and grandparents before me, I had access to a fine education, and because of that education, I have had a sustaining, rewarding career.
But I have spent the last four years working as a high school teacher in communities where the promise of America is less often realized, even for those who seem to work the hardest. I work with teenage students who, as they begin to understand the world around them, face their reality that fulfillment of the American promise is not guaranteed. Therefore, I have come to understand that my role as an educator is as much about teaching content as it is about selling the promise of America to my students. While I think Calculus is awesome enough to need no additional justification, I often talk with my students about the doors it will open for them on the pathway to a successful, happy life.
But my students still don’t always buy it—and understandably. The problem runs much deeper than the skepticism and questioning inherent to adolescence. My students are surrounded by messages about what America expects of them that seem to drown out the positive messages of those who care about them. They see family members whose belief in the promise of America compelled them to leave everything they know to walk across the Mexican border, only to come here and suffer from overwork and discrimination. Or they see people who look like them being gunned down by those who have sworn to protect them. They hear that their parents are lazy and need to “get a job,” when in reality having only one job would be a relief. They hear presidential front-runners call them “rapists and murderers,” when, ironically, several of their peers came here to escape rape and murder at the hands of drug gangs and cartels in Central America. Under these circumstances, it would be easy for these young people to conclude that perhaps the American promise has an asterisk: it does not apply to them.
I have come to understand that my role as an educator is as much about teaching content as it is about selling the promise of America to my students.
And yet, many of my students seem to be possessed by a determination to succeed in the face of all those obstacles. The greatest privilege of my time as a teacher has been to witness how my students respond to the story that our society has told about them. Some students sit in the parking lot at McDonalds typing papers on their phone because it’s the only way they can get access to their Google Docs. Meanwhile, their peers work inside that same McDonalds to help their families buy groceries. Some students balance completing their homework assignments with cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and other requirements of running a household. Others carry their homework in huge, folded-up wads in their pockets because they know that carrying a book bag could make them a target of violence in their neighborhoods. Some of my students spend hours after school in tutoring to make up for deficits of in their education, while others piece together scholarships to make up for deficits in federal grant money caused by their immigration status.
I became a teacher because I wanted to help others achieve the dream that was promised and given to me. But teachers do not bear this responsibility solely, nor is it even possible for them to do it alone. The promise of America is enshrined in our founding documents, but it requires all of us to bring it to life. Our words, our actions, our communities, and our beliefs all determine who gets access to the dream; it is our obligation to ensure that the promise is kept to all people living within our borders. Inspired by the determination, resilience, and heart of my students, I am committed to helping all people reach the promise of America in order to form a union that is truly more perfect. I hope you will join me.
Connor Nowalk is an Inaugural Lean Lab Fellow and the founder of Echograde, an app that helps teachers communicate with their students about feedback. Echograde is now accepting teacher signups for the 2015-16 school year. To sign up or learn more, visits http://echograde.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org