Great teachers can make an enormous difference in students’ lives. We all know that, but sometimes it takes a personal story to remind us, as veteran high school French teacher Ken Haines did during the second annual Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers convening in San Diego.
Haines was one of three teachers who gave TED-style talks that brought the audience of some 250 fellow teachers to laughter—and to tears.
Many years ago, Haines attended a talk by writer-and-activist Jonathan Kozol. It was Kozol's stark portrayal of schools in socio-economically neighborhoods that convinced him to remain in Northwestern High School, for the majority of his career. He had dropped out of Northwestern in the 70's. "Within every classroom," Haines said “sits an 'invisible' child, an assassinated Mozart.” Often it is the teacher—and only the teacher—who can prevent hope from flickering out.
Haines, like every teacher, taught too many teenagers who seemed to drift purposelessly from class to class. One of them was Teresa, who during the course of her junior year tried to take her life. Afterwards, Haines helped her devise a plan that would help her cope with her perilous home situation. The next year, feeling stronger, she completed Haines’ Advanced Placement French class.
Haines stayed in touch with Teresa, who eventually graduated from the Monterey Institute, where she studied Persian languages, and later completed survival school in the Air Force. Last June, Haines received a card from her that read, “to someone who is like a father to me.” But the real thrill came even more recently when Teresa asked him to give her away when she marries. “And people wonder why we teach!” Haines said.
After 25 years of teaching in Prince George’s County, Haines recently left the classroom to assume the duties of president at the local teachers’ association. His goals include finding a fair, reliable way to evaluate teachers and encouraging teachers to open their classrooms as laboratories to colleagues. “The system of isolating teachers in a room with children does not constitute effective professional development,” he said.
Haines’ heart, though, remains in the classroom, and he describes all of his other endeavors as “afterthoughts.” “Our fulfillment as teachers must arise from turning a child’s path outward, to find safe footing in the world,” he said at the conference. “Only a life lived for others is worth living.”