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Intensive Care: A Doctor's Journey

Teachers—and Activists—In Their Own Words

David Chura is the author of I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, and he has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcerated youth.

Over the last few months, Chura's blog, Kids in the System, has featured a series called "Teachers in Their Own Words." Chura invited "a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom." It's made for enlightening, inspirational reading. We asked him a few questions about the series for Beacon Broadside.

David Chura will speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Boston this Saturday, as part of Beacon's panel on Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. See him—along with Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Marianne Leone, and Beacon Director Helene Atwan—at 9am Saturday in Room 206, level 2. Get more information on AWP panels featuring Beacon authors, and be sure to visit us in the Bookfair at booth 1214 for author signings and a 35% discount on all books. 

Chura_bookWhat inspired you to ask other teachers to write about their experiences?

The educational debate is lively, fierce at times, and filled with voices—of economists, politicians, business executives, unions, academics, educational experts. The one voice that is under represented, if not silent, is that of classroom teachers, the folks on the front lines of education. But that silence hasn’t been my experience. In my many conversations with teachers that I know, and in my correspondence with those from across the country who have reached out to me through the internet, teachers have a lot to say. Yes, they’re concerned about the policies that are being made about curriculum, about standardized testing, about teacher evaluation. But what they are really talking about is what matters most to them: the everyday classroom and the kids that they teach and nurture and care about, and about how they can do their best for their students. The absence of teachers’ voices in the educational debate has bothered and saddened me. In order to break that silence I began the series, “Teachers in Their Own Words,” inviting teachers to write about what is most on their minds. 

Teaching is a demanding job under the best conditions. How do teachers who have additional challenges—of teaching kids in lockup, overcoming ESL difficulties, getting through to kids who have been abused—find the strength to do what they do?

I think all teachers but especially those working with special needs students ask themselves that question: how—and why—do I keep doing this? The answer is pretty simple. They’re nourished by the steps—little steps, big steps, leaps and bounds, and sometimes a mere eighth of an inch forward—that their students make, students for whom any progress is a struggle of effort against some pretty hefty odds. Teachers facing the extra challenge of special needs students learn to appreciate not just the successes of their students (and there are many) but also to value the effort that these kids put into their work. Why teach in challenging classrooms? Galway Kinell put it nicely: “everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing /though sometimes it is necessary/to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Who wouldn’t show up day after day for that? 

Given that the educational system is always under heavy scrutiny and budget pressure, do you think that teachers have to, in some way, be activists? 

Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist. And given the present economic and educational climate, teachers as agents of change seem even more imperative. For a teacher, that change happens daily in the classroom as he or she is alert to the needs of students: it may be for a winter coat, a pair of eyeglasses to see the board, or a dental checkup; or it may be a need for protection from bullies, from abusive treatment at home, from danger in the streets on the way to school. Any teacher knows that these needs must be attended to as soon as possible—there’s no time for the bickering of experts—in order to ensure student safety and wellbeing. In turn, dealing with those needs on the everyday level often has compelled teachers to become involved in the larger national debate on such issues as economic disparity, gun control and health care. The insights teachers bring to these issues comes from their knowledge and experience of the whole child and their firsthand awareness of the impact that these and other social issues have on kids’ development and education. It’s a perspective only teachers can bring to our national discourse about what is best for our children. It’s a voice we need to listen to.