Step Outside the Teacher Box

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When people ask me what sort of work I do, I now respond that I am an educator. For a while, I said I was a teacher, but this has seemed less and less to capture what I really do.

I work at a nonprofit organization dedicated to innovation in helping extremely high-risk young people change their lives in profound ways. To some, I am a GED teacher. My job, I have been told, is to “get me my GED!” I smile when I hear this, because the reality couldn’t be more complex.

The GED exam is currently being restructured to better align it with its nominal goal of high-school equivalency. What this means is that students will be better prepared for a 21st-century workforce and sufficiently equipped for college.

In the end, I think it represents a real improvement upon the status quo. But there’s a big wrinkle for those teaching in alternative education programs, and particularly for those of us who work with incarcerated or recently released students. It often isn’t possible to “teach” our students in any standard sense. And this is where I draw a distinction between teaching and educating. Teaching has, in my experience, involved the communication of a lesson, often a discrete and deliberate one, toward a stated purpose or in pursuit of a specific skill. Educating, on the other hand, is much broader in function and effect. Think of it as the sort of difference we find between hearing and listening: One involves an auditory stimulus, while the other propels that stimulus through the ear canal and into the soul.

Educating includes teaching as a critical element, but most of us can remember vivid lessons learned via other, often more unconventional, channels.

As I and the rest of my education team continue to map out our strategies for developing word-processing skills in students who have taught themselves to read during a prison stint, for cultivating critical thinking in minds stunted by persistent violence and abuse, for finding the time to teach toward the Common Core for students who sleep on couches or in the street, I am both haunted and comforted by the thought that I simply cannot teach all of this.

I am educating for change: an end to street violence, a reduction in recidivism, an alternative to substance abuse, a family-supporting job for a poverty-free home. Mathematics and science begin to make sense only when their vector is a human connection and an educator trying his level best to listen for when and how that change can happen before delivering a lesson. Osmosis may deliver chemicals through the blood-brain barrier, but it won’t deliver knowledge into the heads of students. Only an educator—a friend, a teacher—can do that.

Swoveland works with high-risk young people primarily preparing them for the GED exam in Massachusetts. He also leads enrichment and engagement programs in writing, photography and art.