When I was studying to be a teacher, I had to write a philosophy of education. This essay was to explain what I believed about kids and the role teachers and education played in their lives. I wrote that all kids could learn, that they all deserved equal access to inspired teaching and that my role was to meet them wherever they were and serve them in the way that best met their needs.
Although I still believe those things are true, I've come to realize that my teaching is driven more by a different philosophy than the one I wrote about. I'm finally able to be honest with myself about why I do what I do and why I must keep doing it despite frustration, adversity and heartbreak. This "aha!" moment occurred recently, when I was watching a movie called The Human Experience.
In this movie, a group of young men travel the world asking people about the meaning of life. It's not a question I've ever been concerned with. But perhaps that's because, in my heart, I've always been a teacher, despite the long, circuitous route I took to get here. Teachers tend to focus on the work at hand—there's so much of it—than on the larger questions of why we're here and what we're doing. Pondering the meaning of life was a luxury I didn't have time for because there was serious work to be done.
In The Human Experience, Peruvian orphans, homeless New Yorkers, and Ghanaian lepers open their hearts and share what they understand about their lives and their places in the world. Watching, I finally understood that my philosophy of education wasn't what I had written in my essay.
The real reason I do what I do is because I believe that the commonality of human experience unites us all, no matter how different we seem. Regardless of the genetic gifts we've been given or denied, regardless of the physical abilities we have or don't have, regardless of how easily math comes to some while utterly confounding others, we are more alike than not. To progress as a human race, every single one of us must embrace our sameness with as much enthusiasm as we celebrate our differences.
My goal as a teacher, as someone who grew up poor among the rich, neglected among the protected, Jewish among the Christian, dark and curly among the blue-eyed blondes, is to help my students discover the unique and important contribution they each have within them. My philosophy of education is that this is the most important task of a teacher, and it is one that overrides verb conjugation, quadratic equations and laboratory science.
It's been said that each of us has a unique note that only we can play, and that the whole orchestra is waiting for us to play our note. My deepest hope is that my students come away from our year together feeling more confident and better equipped to play their notes as boldly and proudly as humanly possible.
The meaning of my life is to inspire kids. I just recently understood how meaningful that really was.
Sofen is a middle school writing teacher in New Jersey.