My Greatest Teaching Moment
by Jesse Hagopian
As a teacher, you never know when your greatest teaching moment will present itself. For high school history teacher Jesse Hagopian that moment came after he was arrested at the state capitol and his students made their own history.
I achieved the greatest moment in my teaching career this past winter.
Though billionaire education reformers may fall out of their brass-studded leather chairs to hear it, I did not attain this moment of euphoria from running bubble tests through a Scantron machine and reading the red-inked percentages it spit out. It occurred, in fact, as hundreds upon hundreds of students streamed past me in the hallways, leaving school in the middle of the day carrying hand-made signs that read, “Fund Our Future!” and “No More Cuts.” I was simply overwhelmed with emotion.
The journey to this pinnacle was a long one—and part of an ongoing struggle—but one worth recounting because I think it offers lessons to educators across the country who face child-abusing budget cuts and teacher-bashing corporate education reform.
I began teaching in an elementary school in Southeast Washington, D.C., in 2001. Directly across from the entrance of the school was a decrepit building with vegetation growing out the windows. The library’s book collection was more appropriate for an archeological study than a source for topical information. Police roamed the halls of our elementary school looking for mouthy kids to jack up against the wall. I had one hole in the middle of the chalkboard and another hole in the ceiling that often meant rain flooded my classroom.
One lasting memory of this experience came on my third day of teaching. I had asked my sixth graders to bring a meaningful object from home for a show-and-tell activity.
I received a higher degree in education theory that year as I witnessed our nation spend money to bomb children halfway around the world while refusing to care for my students in the shadow of the White House.We gathered in a circle in the back of the room that Friday morning and the kids sat eagerly with paper bags on their laps that concealed their autobiographical mementos. One after another, each and every hand came out of those crumpled brown lunch sacks clutching a photo of a close family member—usually a dad or an uncle who was either dead or in jail. When it was my turn, all I could do was stare stupidly at the baseball I had pulled out, nervously picking at the red stitches as I mumbled something about how I had played in college.
Only a few days after this lesson, the attacks of 9/11 were carried out, closely followed by the government’s launching of the war on Afghanistan. I received a higher degree in education theory that year as I witnessed our nation spend money to bomb children halfway around the world while refusing to care for my students in the shadow of the White House. Soon, too, it became apparent in all of the No Child Left Behind rhetoric about accountability that I was being asked, from inside of the classroom, to correct all of the mistaken priorities of the politicians.
My start in education in Washington, D.C., Public Schools taught me that being a social justice educator has to mean two things: provide an anti-racist curriculum in the classroom and be an activist in the community—that is, fight to restructure society so education is a priority over war spending and bank bailouts.
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