On Monday I got a great gift: an email notification of a LinkedIn message from a man who was in the internship program I started at CASES, which was the predecessor for exalt. I feel like I need some blank space to sit around the word “man” because it’s hard to acknowledge that he’s not even a “young man” per se – he’s probably in his early 30’s. Still young, but nowhere near adolescence, which is where he was when he was in my program fourteen years ago. He wrote “I just wanted to take the time to thank you for everything that you’ve done for me. You opened my eyes and helped me realize that life can be great if I put in the effort. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for you. It’s deeply appreciated.” He works in management information systems for a big nonprofit now.
Everyone that is a teacher out there (in all the myriad forms the role can take) knows there is nothing comparable to the feeling of getting a message from a former student expressing recognition and appreciation of the impact you’ve had on him or her. I am fortunate to have been on both ends of this relationship. I had several incredibly impactful teachers when I was growing up, but none more so than my AP Biology teacher in my senior year of high school. I didn’t need to be an adult to realize the significance of a black man with a PhD who had been teaching at Brandeis University, deciding to come teach at a public high school. He told his students he believed he could have more impact by teaching young people. I was already very driven by an intrinsic axis of purpose so his commitment to making the most impact he could – on the world essentially – resonated strongly with me and made me feel a sense of obligation to live up to the expectations he set by his own life decisions and practices. He was a phenomenal teacher. What made him phenomenal was not how well he knew the subject or the curriculum he developed to help us learn it, but the infusion of everything he did with a loud expression of love for all of us and the unwavering expectation that we all could, and would, learn what he had to teach us.
This teacher’s influence clearly extended far beyond the students he taught directly. His approach is the foundation for exalt. An intentional, and regularly assessed balance between engagement and discipline drives our approach to “youth development,” – to education. And underlying it all is love and determination.
Yesterday we had a couple visitors to one of our classes and a few students referred to our lesson on the school-to-prison pipeline as something that stood out for them. When asked why, they often over-simplify the complex problem, partly because of their limited vocabulary. So one student responded, “well, it’s like school is pushing us to prison…” I could see our guests get wide-eyed with concern that we’re brainwashing our students with some monolithic anti-establishmentarianism. When I speak to people about our curriculum I’m often asked if presenting students with something as daunting (and depressing) as the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t make them feel further dis-empowered, and “take them off the hook” from personal responsibility. To the contrary, our presentation and discussion of this subject does not remotely suggest a simplistic view of the nexus of our worst and most entrenched societal problems. Rather, it shows them the blatant and nuanced relationships between their schools, neighborhoods, their behavior, the behavior of law enforcement, and their involvement in the criminal justice system, and gives them an introduction to how these connect to historical patterns of segregation, discrimination and inequity. AND, we shed light on what has been done historically, as well as what can be done presently, to counteract these patterns. What gets shorthanded as “school is pushing us to prison” doesn’t mean our students are literally accusing their teachers and principals of conspiracy, bur rather it’s an indication of their eyes opening wider and taking in a broader view of their very circumscribed realities. One student responded immediately after the first, “I ask more questions in my classes now.” Exactly. That is the point.
We teach our students about the school-to-prison pipeline not to incite them to boycott school more than they already do without much consciousness, but to inspire and motivate them to develop more urgency and agency in their lives, which includes going to school, and participating in their education.
You might consider setting yourself up to receive the greatest gift ever, by taking an exalt intern on where you work. Years from now, you might get an email that knocks you off your feet because you had no idea that some hours you invested in a young person way back when, actually helped him change the course of his life. Nothing compares.