To Teach is to Breathe

Novelist and Penn Professor Lorene Cary’s Safe Kids Stories on the power of teaching, from current and future educators

To Teach is to Breathe

Novelist and Penn Professor Lorene Cary’s Safe Kids Stories on the power of teaching, from current and future educators

Why do people teach, or want to teach? What drives them and guides them as they shape young minds? This month, Safe Kids Stories—novelist Lorene Cary’s youth-focused writing project—asked teachers, and teaching students, to reflect on their work. The stories they got back are about not only the ways we can shape education to serve all students, but about the impact students leave on teachers’ lives, giving them the motivation to keep going back. It’s a reminder of why teachers are one of our most precious resources.

Here, a selection of Safe Kids Stories pieces. To read all of them, check them out here.

To Teach is To Breathe 

When I teach, I dream of creating a teacher. I hope they will take what I’ve given them to their homes, friends, churches; anywhere where the world touches their lives, and initiate possibility for someone else. I teach because I love my students. We create a home, a safe place, if only for an hour or ninety minutes a week. Patiently, like a bird creates a nest, I meticulously weave a rest- pence for them, sometimes trading the lesson plan for scraps of information, the whisper of trust.

I teach to create thinkers.

I teach to create mentally healthy kids. The first step to a kid understanding their problem, is to understand that they are NOT alone. My number one goal in my workshops is to create a family style relationship in our space. When we are related, whether by blood or reasoning, we buy into the concept of protecting the group. We respect what is being shared, both inside and outside of the environment and create a sense of trust that allows for community and situational togetherness.

I teach because I must exhale, and the two movements are too closely connected to separate.

I teach to create an option for anger and sadness. I try to create a safe space for pain and unhappiness. This is an intentional work that feels almost sacred to me. We so often learn to hide our pain and grief; to shelve it because no one wants to hear about our problems. But I do want to hear — that’s my purpose, to listen.

I teach to create appreciation.

I teach to create possibility.

I teach to hand out fresh chances, like hall passes — to be used, and given to the next person in need.

– Tina Smith-Brown 

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Re-Shaping the Classroom Structure

As a future educator, I do not want my students to be spread thin. I want them not only to apply what they learn to the outside world, but to enjoy the content I present. Learning is a lifelong process, and when we as educators teach for test-taking instead of as preparation for adult life, assign hours of homework a week, and only assess students according to a rigid grading system, students’ lifelong learning is inhibited.

Do SomethingWhen all they know how to do is memorize information instead of applying it, they are not adequately being prepared for the real world. When they are only doing homework and studying because their grade depends on it, they are neglecting the educational opportunities right in front of them. Learning presents itself in a variety of forms: in the people we meet, in nature, and in the experiences we undertake. Burying our heads in books is not how we receive job offers, start a family, or maintain relationships.

In my classroom…

  • Content will be inspired by students’ interests and talents.
  • Students will be encouraged to think originally and push themselves out of their comfort zone.
  • Students will learn how to analyze texts in relation to their own lives.
  • Homework will be an as-needed instead of a nightly requirement.
  • Students will be assessed in a variety of methods to accommodate for different learners.
  • Students will look forward to learning as a means to becoming intelligent, creative, problem-solving young adults.

– Brianna Vassallo 

Teach One

Remembering my beginnings therefore, possessed of a deep desire to learn and to do so even under the grudging approval of a possible rival, I position myself to teach. I want to teach because I want to impart knowledge that leads to self-fulfillment. I want to teach students whose former teachers dismissed them as dumb, deprived them of self-worth, and shackled their personal emancipation. I want to teach so that I can say I am sorry for your pain, I forgive you for mine, I thank you, I honor you, you’re welcome, Congratulations, Best Wishes, Happy Birthday… as I claim the right to the education that I have fought so earnestly to attain and so passionately to share. I want to teach to forge a road toward liberation.

– Carole Metellus

The Ghetto Sculpture

My 8th grade teacher told me to dropout and to become a cashier for Micky D’s, but here I am alive pursuing degrees.

“They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.”

Read MoreWatch me grow.

Watch me not only carve a place for me in this world, but also for my people.

Watch me sculpt better than Michelangelo Donatello, Picasso, and Alberto.

Watch me as I sculpt beauty out of the ghetto.

Watch as these worn hands make a masterpiece.

I’m as hungry for opportunity as I am fighting for my piece.

I was given scraps and pieces, but in poverty hard lessons are what teaches.

On nights when food was low, I learned to sacrifice for my sisters and bros.

On nights when mom and dad did drugs, I learned to give my two sisters hugs.

When I came home from school and saw the depravity and poverty, I knew that I must work harder.

I came from a broken neighborhood.

I went to a broken school.

I lived in a broken home.

I took these broken pieces and sculpted myself into the man that I am today.

– Raheem Curry

Your Empty Seat

My body slumped in my desk chair. I had to give everyone time to write, but the prompt was an excuse for me to sit down. To take a breath. It had been a long week. I looked to my left where your now-empty seat sits. A roaring shadow floats over it. It feels foreign. It once was home to your booming laugh and beaming hazel eyes. On days like today, when I was teaching boring, but important lessons, I would look your way to see what you were up to.

You would give me a look that said, “My stomach growling is the only thing on my mind, not this writing prompt.” I would laugh as I threw you a mint in an attempt to curb your hunger, “What, your mom didn’t make your Eggos today?” After you caught the mint, I would peek over your arm to see what new dance sticker you had added to your notebook. I would slip it into conversation so you knew I paid attention to what interested you. But today — like yesterday and all the days since it happened — I didn’t get that chance.

– Christina Photiades

A Letter to the Invisible Student

I see you.

You are not invisible. You are not here to fill a desk in a classroom. I care about you. I want you here. When you think nobody sees you, know I see you. When you think nobody notices you, know I haven’t stopped thinking about why you declined to eat lunch in my room instead of eating alone in the cafeteria. When you think nobody misses you, know I was up last night wondering why you didn’t come to school, and if I am one of the reasons you didn’t want to be here. When you think nobody cares, know I show up every day for you, hoping that today is the day that you see how much I want to connect. When you think that people want to see you fail, know that I am creating assignments in hopes that you chase success. When you think nobody believes in you, know I struggle every day to tell you that you have more potential than you realize, both inside and outside of my classroom. You are not invisible, you are important to me and to the world, and I’m happy that you decided to come to my class today.

To the student sitting in the back of my classroom who thinks nobody knows you’re alive…. 

you’re wrong.


Your Teacher

– Maggie McGill


Edited and condensed by Kiersten A. Adams.

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