Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Educators Must Live the Why

Every Child has a Champion at Space Coast

In May 2013, long-time educator and anti-poverty activist Rita Pierson filmed one of the most inspirational TED Talks ever seen. In a course of 7 short minutes, she imparted a lifetime of wisdom as she encouraged educators everywhere to stay focused on the compelling reasons why they must unequivocally support and inspire every student entrusted to their care.

Mrs. Pierson didn't imply it would be easy. She spoke candidly about the daunting challenges teachers face in classrooms across the country. For example, she posed a question some teachers find themselves asking at the beginning of a school year: "How am I going to take this group (of students), in nine months, from where they are to where they need to be?" Yet, for every towering inquiry, her solution-oriented approach to educating children balanced a unique perspective of understanding the strenuous truth behind the task at hand with a personal mission to instill vigorous hope to make the impossible happen.

Relationships stand at the forefront of Mrs. Pierson's philosophy of educating children. Lose focus on developing meaningful relationships, and education suffers. Foster relationships that emphasize the unique strengths and talents of people, and education soars. Data-driven decision making is a paramount operational approach in today's standards-based, accountability-rich educational climate, but leveraging data alone will not inspire greatness or result in optimal student achievement; supporting and empowering people closely followed by leading and achieving with data will.  Simply put, data matters, but people matter more.

In her thought-provoking book, Daring Greatly, researcher, author, and popular TED alum Brené Brown implored, "If we want to reignite innovation and passion, we have to rehumanize work." When it comes to humanizing a child's educational experience, building authentic relationships is a mandatory start.

Founder of Communities in Schools and author of The Last Dropout, Bill Milliken has worked tirelessly to promote graduation rates among disenfranchised youth. About the role of relationships in education, Milliken said: "It's relationships, not programs, that change children. A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level, and when they also have a sense of belonging to a caring community."

Teachers and staff at Space Coast Jr./Sr. High School were moved by Mrs. Pierson's passionate way of communicating how critical it is for teachers to care for the children in their classrooms.

"Who knew that much intensity could be jam-packed into 7 minutes?" reacted Asa McKeown, a speech and language pathology teacher.

"I teared up a little bit," said Lauren Daubs, who teaches middle school language arts and math. "I feel like it puts things into perspective. There's more to it than teaching from the book. You have to teach from the heart, too. I was inspired."

"We are more than just a presenter of material," said Junior Class sponsor Jennifer Cotton, who teaches high school forensics, marine science and biology. "We are someone that is all some kids have. We are here to help them grow as students and future adults. We are here to inspire them to want to be better. We are here to plant seeds of interest and guide them on how to make that seed flourish."

Of course, dealing with a frequently misbehaved child can test any teacher's patience; however, as Mrs. Pierson's teachings affirm, there is a way to get through to even the most reluctant student. The path? Making a commitment to be their champion. "Sometimes our worst behavior issue just need you to reach out and show them you care," said Mrs. Cotton. "Be the role model they need."

Reading coach Lori Cantaloupe also felt a deep connection with Mrs. Pierson's message. "Someone may never remember the thing you taught them, but they will remember that you loved them."

Led by a supportive administration, teachers and staff at Space Coast Jr./Sr. High School place a special emphasis on the
value of making meaningful connections, building trusting relationships, and serving as each child's champion.

"Make the relationship and the kids will follow," said Science Department Chair Christina Sage, who teaches high school biology and zoology in addition to sponsoring the Environmental Club.

"People need to feel that they're important," said Patricia Smith, a high school language arts teacher. "It's true that you don't learn from someone you don't like, so it's important for students to feel that you enjoy what you do. I really liked the way Mrs. Pierson explained writing +2 on a student's paper instead of -18. It's crucial to give positive feedback and encouragement to students."

Teachers were not the only ones enlightened by Mrs. Pierson's speech; students also drew wisdom and encouragement from her words.

"Rita Pierson solidifies my views on education. She stresses the importance of relationships when it comes to bringing education back to its core," said senior Jonathan Guarin. "Teachers are the crucial link between students and education. The extent to which they relate to students on a personal level determines whether education succeeds."

"(Mrs. Pierson) brings powerful words to the minds of everyone," said Sebastian Osario, a senior. "She brings realization and inspiration to not only adults but kids, as well, to connect. She struck a newfound goal (within me) to do what I may do with a kind, excited, and loving heart. To enjoy my life while helping others enjoy it, as well. We can all be teachers, but few inspire like she does."

Research proves what common sense suggests. When students recognize their teachers care about them, a whole new world of opportunities opens up to them. Around education, fingers are often pointed at backgrounds, beliefs, attitudes, socioeconomic status, academic readiness, and other factors outside of an educator's control upon the arrival of a child into their classroom. The reality is every child has the capacity to learn and grow when they are in the presence of a teacher who is committed to serving as their champion.

For over 40 years, Mrs. Pierson taught, encouraged, and empowered countless children in her classroom. Just two months following her heartfelt TED Talk, Mrs. Pierson passed away. While her departure is a tremendous loss to the field of education, the legacy she leaves behind equates to a paradigm-shifting movement powerful enough to carry educators forward with renewed vigor and reaffirmed reasons for reaching, teaching, and championing students.

Considering roughly 5 million people have watched her infectious outlook on the value and importance of teaching with passion and purpose, it is obvious her profound message has spread far beyond the classroom and will continue to live on for many generations to come in communities around the world. Paraphrasing Henry Adams: teachers affect eternity because they can never tell where their influence stops. Given that her teachings have made champions of an abundance of educators, Mrs. Pierson's influence won't be stopping any time soon.

To see Mrs. Pierson's speech, visit Every Kid Deserves a Champion.

Stay current with Space Coast Jr./Sr. High at Space Coast Edline.

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