WHY I TEACH

That Magic Moment

When her third-grade students hit a research obstacle, Syrita Jackson made the call—literally—to teach a point about perseverance.

Photography by Robin Henson

It was the end of one of those grueling first few days of a new school year. Right before the hectic lunch box-and-book bag scramble, I remembered that many of my students had asked for help with a research assignment that would soon be due. 

The assignment required each student to read about scientists from a variety of demographics and backgrounds and then choose one to write a report on, including basic information about the person and a summary of his or her research. As a teacher of mostly Latino students, it is of the utmost importance to me that my kids understand that the possibilities for their lives are unlimited. This assignment was especially critical for my learners because, in a survey of their attitudes about science, most of my students revealed that they thought scientists were dead white men who’d worn lab coats and glasses. I needed my kids to see themselves as scientists! They needed to know scientists who looked like them. 

They were given nearly a week to complete the task, but after a day or two, many had told me that finding their scientists’ birth dates and countries of origin was very difficult. A little online research on my part proved the kids right; this information was not readily available. I knew there was no way they could proceed without additional support and tools. So—at two in the afternoon, right before school let out—I held myself accountable as their guide.

Many of the scientists they were considering worked at colleges and universities. I’m a firm believer in modeling as an instructional strategy, so I decided to show my students how easily they could obtain the information they needed. I suggested we simply call the scientists. 

I started to dial a scientist at a local university on speakerphone. My kids were amazed. 

“You are just going to call them?” they asked, wide-eyed.

 “Yes, why not?” I responded nonchalantly.

I called. No answer. I left a very professional, yet basic message on behalf of my students. Then I asked the kids, “Who wants to call their scientist?” Some of the shock had worn off, and a small group courageously stepped forward. We Googled the phone number of the next scientist, and one member of the group reluctantly dialed. It rang once, and suddenly there was a voice on the other end of the line. 

We collectively held our breaths. The paranoid teacher voice in my head got louder: “Are we ready for this? The school year has just begun! What will she say? Have I modeled this well enough?”

As confidently as if we had practiced this a million times, my newly minted third-graders spoke with a paleontologist in California. After recovering from her own shock at being called by a third-grade class, she seemed genuinely flattered to talk with my students. The conversation was brief but thrilling for all of us.

This is why I teach. That magic moment when everything clicks, when all the chaos and paperwork fade into the background. I teach for the privilege of seeing how simple things can become magic in a child’s hands.

In that one moment, my students fell in love with science, with learning and with each other. They discovered more about who I was—and who they could be. They saw themselves as empowered learners who, with a simple phone call, could access a world-renowned scientist, ask questions, get answers and somehow, some way, someday change the world.

Syrita Jackson teaches third grade at Hapeville Elementary School in Hap.

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