Esther Wojcicki has been a Journalism/English teacher at Palo Alto High School (CA) for the past 25 years; there, she built the journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1985 to the largest high school journalism program in the nation. She is also the Board Chair of Learning Matters.
To be real about it, teachers have a lot of power over their kids — they can close the door and shut out the world, but I teach because I want to give up whatever power I have. My goal as a teacher is to empower kids to live satisfying and productive lives. That is my primary goal.
I want to help them develop three sets of skills — interpersonal, organizational and communication — that will help them in every profession and all areas of life.
I have difficulty believing that I have been teaching for thirty years, but trust me when I tell you that I look forward to every day (well, almost every day). Thirty years is a long time to have been in the classroom, but I have enjoyed every day of it. While there have been bad days, they are rare. As a teacher, my product is human beings. That is, I am helping grow adults, and I feel fortunate to spend every weekday with every family’s most precious asset: their children.
I get to help them in a way their parents can’t. I know because I am also a parent and needed good teachers to help teach my kids when they wouldn’t listen to me. I could guide them, but the emotional bonds between parent and child can make it difficult to teach your own children.
As a teacher, I get to teach everyone else’s kids about the world and show them how to navigate it. My goal is to positively impact their lives and make them feel good about themselves while also teaching them English and journalism. I genuinely enjoy being with them and especially love the most difficult of all ages — namely, teenagers. They tend to be energetic, creative and humorous, and their drive for independence empowers them to think outside the box. I love to see what far-out ideas they dream up. Some of them have turned out to be real winners. Kids are amazing — if you encourage them.
I try to create a classroom atmosphere in which students are not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are encouraged to take intellectual risks and occasionally fail, because that is the way they learn best. I promote collaborative learning, or working on projects in groups. Who wouldn’t have more fun working with their friends? They do. They love working with their peers, and I facilitate that interaction setting up projects that are both meaningful and educational.
The more that kids actually do an activity on their own, the more independent and empowered they will be. One example is in my journalism class where students work in groups on sections of the paper. As a class they come up with their own story ideas; they assign the stories and they then supervise each other in the writing process. I serve as a resource and a facilitator, making suggestions and guiding the process, but I am not controlling it or them. I facilitate their interaction, guide their learning and allow them to do the work themselves.
Another example: In my ninth-grade English class, students write collaborative book reviews. They pick their own books either in a bookstore, at the library or on Amazon and then share their thoughts as they read the book. It’s just more fun to read with a group of friends. They write collaborative book reviews, which means they each write using Google Docs, enabling them to share and peer edit from any computer anywhere and at anytime. They are also using Google Hangouts in the evening to have discussions. It makes reading and writing fun. I edit their book reviews only after they have had a chance to peer edit. It’s amazing what a good job they do and how few errors I find.
One of the great perks of teaching is occasionally hearing from former students about how I impacted their lives. One, the multi-talented actor James Franco, said it all in a poster of the two of us distributed by non-profit organization Teachers Count.
“You showed me I could take my dreams as seriously as I wanted,” he said. Those dreams are now a reality for James and for many of my students. What other profession could give me such a sense of paying it forward?
Why do I teach? I guess the best answer is — because I cannot resist. I love empowering kids.
The next post in this series will be online on Thursday, April 5.