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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Power of One: A Teacher Can Make Every Child Feel Important

Children need someone who says, "You mean something." Often, that person is a teacher.
By Tony Kushner

Credit: Shorenstein Hays-Nederlander Theatres

I work in the theater, which is a morally dubious occupation. But there is nothing morally dubious about educating a child.

Unfortunately, we treat our public schools as if there were. In New York City, where I live, there are schools that don't have libraries, schools that don't have desks. We need to give more money to schools, and we need to increase teacher salaries. If we don't give our schools the attention they deserve, we're in danger of depriving a whole generation of a decent education.

Still, I am not one of those people who believes that all is lost. I persist in believing that change can happen and that the heart of each student can be touched. I went to public school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Schools were generally not very good there, but I got lucky. In a rather unremarkable school system, I had some remarkable teachers.

In sixth grade I had an English teacher who desperately wanted us to learn to write and speak correctly. She drilled English syntax and structure into us relentlessly. She was, to me at that time, incredibly scary and mean. All the students hated her, but the rules of language and clear expression -- pretty key ingredients in being a writer -- got pounded into my head.

This teacher is quite old now, and a little while back, she came up to New York to see a performance of my play Caroline, or Change. I met her afterward and tried to tell her how important her lessons had been to me. "Thank you," I said. "You really changed my life. I can't tell you how much I owe you."

She looked at me for a second, then said, "That's really nice, honey, but most of my students just think I'm an old bitch."

Each student, every day, is on a journey of discovery, and I believe that every single teacher can make a difference in that voyage. We can teach kids that they are special, that there are certain things in the world that don't have easy answers, that there are moments in your life that will open up your heart, that they are not just one of fifty goldfish in a small pond with a limited food supply.

When we deprive our children of an education, we've committed a crime because we've taken away their right to pursue happiness. There is no guarantee that any of us is ever going to catch up with happiness, but we need legs to pursue it. Often, those legs are supplied by a teacher.

One of the great paradoxes of life is that people are enormously resilient but also incredibly fragile. That is especially true in kids. It's hard work to be a kid, but kids have a wonderful generosity of spirit. It takes so little to make them want to try. They need loving parents and a loving home, of course, but they also need teachers who care and who don't give up. Every student needs someone who says, simply, "You mean something. You count."

That kind of support doesn't guarantee that the kid won't grow up to be a neurotic mess (although some of the most interesting people I know are neurotic messes), but it does offer them a chance to grow up to be coherent and have an internal organization that allows them to make sense of the world. Perhaps, if they are lucky, they will live a good life.

I believe that human society is essentially composed of our relationships with others. And those relationships start very early in school. As teachers, make sure you do everything you can do -- more than you've ever done. Even just a little bit more will make a big difference.

Tony Kushner is a playwright whose works include A Bright Room Called Day and Hydrotaphia. He is perhaps best known for Angels in America, which received a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, eleven Emmys, and two Drama Desk Awards, and was selected by London’s National Theatre as one of the ten best plays of the twentieth century. This piece is based on two interviews with him in San Francisco. Write to edit@edutopia.org.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

marzeah abedi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it was very interesting i enjoyed and made me energetic again for teaching.tnx a lot

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educational Consultant/Author, Southern California

Teaching is truly an act of faith; we teachers seldom see the seeds grow that we sow. But we believe they grow. How wonderful to be the teacher who encouraged you.

Alyson's picture

This article shows that teachers make a difference in our world. Teachers help students to set goals and to follow their dreams. Therefore, teachers need to be caring, nurturing, and hardworking. Teachers also need to create a positive learning environment in which students can discover their special talents and skills.

kmfullerton's picture

Since I work with incarcerated young men, I can tell you that their narrative always includes a sense that they meant nothing, or not enough, to anyone. They were expected to fail (and told as much over and over) and, for many, school failed them. Remember it is important for even the most unlovable student to feel they matter...they already have enough going against them.
We may not see the impact of caring and empowering, but teachers are time travel agents...we send them into a future we will never see; hopefully we have helped them book a really nice trip...

Katherine's picture

I was just thinking about my 4th grade teacher in Batesville, MS, Ms. Hartley. She was the only teacher I had that paddled me but when I needed to do a report and we had no encylopedias, she actually brought one at night to my house and I was so relieved and impressed. Thank you, Ms. Hartley, where ever you are!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Facilitator 2014
Staff

My father sometimes talks about one his teachers in a small, rural village in Jordan. The teacher was strict, demanding, and unbending in expectations of the students. I'm sure it was an awful experience at the time, but my father talks about it with fondness now. That teacher turned out a whole generation of college graduates, doctors and engineers and so on.

Not every teacher needs to be that way, but given some of the other stories my father tells about the little hellions in those classes, that's what was needed at the time.

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