An open letter to visionary and master teacher, Thomas Determan:
It was with great pleasure that I learned about (and contributed to) the Global Perspectives Endowment. Way cool!
And, it was with ridiculous sadness that I learned how soon you’ll blow this figurative popsicle stand. Dude, what a serious bummer!
(I’m sure you’re getting lots of sad-ass emails and cards about now, so I’ll skip that whole part. Hopefully, you know how well-loved you are. I wished I lived closer, too, as Thomfest looked like a blast.)
I’ve been meaning to write a letter like this for years, and the creation of the Global Perspectives Endowment has given me such incentive.
I was one of those many students whose global vision changed on entering your classroom. The first day of 9th grade (1988)—when I entered 10th grade social studies with Sarah K. and a few others (and we had you all to ourselves for one whole class)—well that day and the rest leading up to February (when you deserted us for administration—no wonder I have abandonment issues!) were transformative. Please do not underestimate my meaning: Thomas Determan’s class was life changing for me in all the best ways.
Before walking into that class, which an older friend, Zachary Wilson, had insisted I absolutely must take as a freshman, I was just a working class Iowa girl from a working class Iowa family who thought she might one day teach at a preschool, or something. I didn’t think I was smart. I didn’t aspire to anything. I figured I’d give college a try, and I would likely get married and have kids. That’s it. It wasn’t a terrible plan, but there wasn’t much visions in it. My world was what I saw around me in Dubuque, and that world was neither hopeful nor inclusive. It certainly wasn’t global.
And then came my first assignment in your class. Each student was orally given a unique research task. All you said to me was: Steve Biko. Research and report back to the class.
This task was over my head in so many ways. I lacked the skills and the general knowledge I needed to even attack the problem: I didn’t know about apartheid; I didn’t know about the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature; I’d not yet been to the school library; I’d never had an open-ended prompt like that before, one where I was expected to create my own parameters as I went; and, I’d never been held accountable to the entire class to report what I knew, as if what I knew about a topic was in some way meaningful.
I shared some of this with you and you directed me to the library and to the Reader’s Guide, and I managed on my own from there.
That day alone might have been enough to change the course of my future, but fortunately I had many more of those days with you. I got to know you better through various clubs—Model UN and the global realities trip to Taos—and I valued that time. I was lucky to get a seat next to you at dinner in Cedar Falls at my first Model UN conference. (It was my first time eating Chinese food and you encouraged me to try the chopsticks.) I felt proud every time you asked me what I thought about something, as if what I had to think and say about a subject mattered.
These are big, life changing things, Chinese food and mattering. Please know, that for me and thousands of my Hempstead peers over the years, you were vision altering in all the best ways, including chopsticks.
A few years ago I joined Facebook and reconnected with many Hempsteaders I hadn’t heard from since graduation. One of the things that surprised me was how many of us not only earned advanced degrees, but how many of us teach. I don’t think this is a fluke; it speaks directly to the quality of education we received at Hempstead and the quality of the teachers we encountered throughout Dubuque. It’s a hot spot for good teachers, for sure.
I do not believe all teachers need to be extraordinary or that there is really any measure for that. We put too much onus for the deficits in our education system on the backs of hardworking teachers, who are mostly in survival mode, and this needs to stop. All the problems of general society are in the classroom too, and teachers have so much to do it’s nearly impossible to succeed at teaching subject matter and mentoring informed young people, and yet they do. Everyday.
Extraordinary teachers change lives. Everyday. I am blessed beyond reason that as a student I’ve had more extraordinary teachers than I can name, and I’ve taken this for granted for way too long.
What has become clear to me as a teacher is that many of my students don’t share this blessing, and that lack matters. Some of them can’t name a single extraordinary teacher in their past. Some can name one. This is sad to me for many reasons, but mostly because we all deserve someone in our lives to think our ideas matter and to introduce us to Chinese food and to challenge our visions of reality.
I teach developmental and college-transfer level English in California’s enormous community college system. My students are diverse, yes, and just as diverse from each other as they are similar. Some are recent immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Some are rural. Some are urban and suburban. Most are poor or working class. Many are technologically poor in that their only access to a computer is their phone. Nearly all are working one or more jobs, and have, at times, significant family responsibilities. There are obstacles in their way to getting an education left and right. Their physical, emotional, and learning abilities and disabilities are too numerous to discuss. Many enter the community college system after drug rehab, or a work injury, or a layoff, or time in the military. Community colleges are microcosms of society in ways other colleges are not; we’ve got it all.
Although there are a handful of students using the community college system as an affordable path to the university, many more of my students are meandering without a vision through a rigged system. These students won’t graduate. They won’t advance in their programs. They will get stuck in the cogs of the machine, repeating remedial English and Math until their enthusiasm for more and better is beaten out of them by the gates the academy keeps. Certainly these students are underprepared to succeed in college in all kinds of ways that have been discussed ad nauseam by teachers and administrators and legislators. They are many and varied, but notably a recurring theme I see among these students is there is not a list of extraordinary teachers in their past. Teachers are the fabric of schools, and what teachers can do that an institution cannot is expand a students’ vision of the world. We must foster a culture that supports and encourages teachers to care about and engage with their students. There is no other way to improve education.
Of course that isn’t what most schools are doing on most days. At least not where I live. And it’s a shame.
I have been lucky to have so many excellent teachers as mentors, and I am always growing and learning my trade anew. I spend a lot of time discussing life skills and cultural values with students—much more time than we actually spend on essays and paragraph construction (which, let’s face it, is dull stuff). Of course, they need to construct a strong essay to do well in school, but they also need to write about something, and that something is the stuff of their lives and their cultures—these are the best starting places for fledging academics. These topics offer us a relevant context for thinking and writing. Students do not go to school in a void, and should not write and learn in one either. We teach and learn in a world rife with conflict and despair and generosity and heartbreak—and this matters. These stories of despair and hope and reality matter to all of us. I see part of my job as validating my students version of reality enough to suggest other possible realities, about shifting their visions of possible futures.
Learning always should be grounded in the real and the possible. Ultimately, this is a kind of visionary shift we need—learning without context is just a bunch of words, and a bunch of words isn’t gonna change the direction of this moving train.
My students are finishing up their semester this week. They’ve been giving presentations of their final projects and turning in their reflective self-evaluations. It’s my favorite time of the semester because I can bear witness to the fruits of our collective labors. And this is true: for most, my teaching has mattered. For most, their experience in my classroom has mattered to who they are as people as much as it’s mattered to their subject matter acquisition. I have read their words, and responded to their ideas, and have cared about their work in ways some of them are just now experiencing for the first time. I’ve asked them to think about their futures in new ways. All of this matters. I need to keep reminding myself of this.
That red thread connecting all of their work this semester leads through me and back to you.
You are in my heart.
Cherri Donath Porter