Myles, Middle and High School Teacher, UT
Myles teaches grades seven through twelve in a variety of subjects at Salt Lake Center for Science Education. Prior to moving to Salt Lake City, he worked in schools in Hong Kong, France, California and Colorado. He was interviewed by his good friend and Mentor Catalyst, Nicole.
Think about a child you care deeply about in your life, it could be a child that you teach or a it could be a niece or a nephew. Tell me a little bit about this child and what makes them special.
I’ll just tell you about one kid I thought about. This kid is very intellectual, thoughtful and critical, but in a very polite way. I’m thinking of a senior that I teach. I spend a lot of time with him--he’s in my classroom for supervised study so it’s just him and another student, and then I have him in another class right after that. So on Wednesdays I’m with him for half the day. He challenges me more than some other students. He led a really cool class last week where he talked about about ideology in class, because a student used the “r” word in class the week before and that really bothered him. He thinks that the words we use are very important. He’s very aware and challenges me to think more about the words that we use and how it feeds into systemic oppression. For example, supporting ableism--he talks to me about that a lot--I’ll just say like, casually, “Oh that’s crazy,” and he will politely challenge that in terms of being ableist. I thought that was really interesting. He has great ideas that sparked a class conversation that pushed a lot of the students to share different things about words and how they affect our perceptions, so then a bunch of students wanted to talk about the word queer and how it’s a point of pride for them, etc. I think about him because he says challenging things sometimes that require a lot of my thought to try and grapple with them.
That’s so great that he has that relationship with you that allows him to say those things to you--that’s really unique. When you think about that student into his adult life--in his 30s--he’s out in the adult world. What do you want for him in his life? What would make it a good life?
Well, I think he can definitely decide that--it’s what he feels makes him happy and what makes him feel rewarded. He values activism on a lot of issues--he started a Visible Light Club at our school, so it’s a LGBTQ+ community in support. He’s really into leading that, and he started it from his own initiative and recruited many students. He said the first meeting went really well, so things like that excited him. So I could see him being a social activist. It’s also what he wants to do--he’s great at math and science so he might go into that field, but he can also still be socially engaged and challenging himself and people around him to think critically.
It sounds like a lot of what your saying about a good life would be up to him, but maybe what do you hope he has? Or, maybe it’s best to ask you in your opinion, what constitutes a good life?
I think it’s doing something that you enjoy and feeling some fulfillment and some challenge so that you’re growing. Also, feeling rewarded and happy, which can be really different depending on who you are. But also, that’s probably something you search for your entire life but at least you feel like you’re moving in a positive direction.
I guess, in parallel with that student, I hope that people are hopeful. Ideally, if people are hopeful, they believe that they can have a positive impact on things so they don’t feel defeated or like their actions don’t matter--that they know their actions have consequences and they're doing something positive with that. Also, being empathetic and seeing the value of other people and respecting other’s feelings and desires. At least trying to see where they are coming from. I don’t know, those are kind of vague ideas but I like to think those are important things in society that people should drive towards.
What you’re saying reminds me of this reading I just did about civic education, and how it’s really hard to teach students civic education in a critical way (e.g., exposing institutional oppression) while helping them remain hopeful. But when I went to your classroom, it seems like your students have such a critical lens on our nation’s history while at the same time remaining hopeful and feeling empowered to change that. Can you talk a little about that?
I think that’s an interesting thing to think about. I think that’s totally a goal of mine--in the first week of all my classes we talk about identity. In terms of how they think about their own identity and how multi-faceted that can be. But then, we talk about privilege and oppression, and I think that’s really important. It's a challenge for me too, and something that I think a lot about is how to teach about that and talk about that as someone who is so privileged, and try to own that in the class but still being honest about where I am. I say we need to address it and talk about it head-on, address it, try to be aware of it, but also not be imprisoned or disheartened by it. Which is a hard balance/ I think that’s something that’s easy for me to say but I need to be conscious of it because I’m not going to personally feel imprisoned by that because I’m not oppressed. I try to have that balance of talking about it but also talking about how we want to change it. It’s hard.
I’m still refining my own ability to guide those conversations--I just try to be honest. I have lots of blind spots and I might say something offensive, but my intentions are good and I’m happy to alter that. And I need my students’ help in doing that to understand our society better and understand each other better. It’s really important to talk about. I try to get it started but also follow their lead and see what they have to say.
I feel like I have so much freedom, which is awesome and really fun, and I try to create the best curriculum that I can. I also feel like there are well over 20 different important and legitimate topics to discuss and I just have to pick one at a time. That’s the exciting thing about staying at this school for a long time is that I can try many different approaches and see what works then continue altering, experimenting and refining.
We started to kind of come into this, but if you go back to what you wanted for the specific student we spoke about earlier and your kids in general in their lives...what do you think the role of schools should be in helping kids achieve that good life? Not what they currently do, but in the ideal world, how would schools play into that good life?
Well, I think we, speaking as a person working in a school, have to do all of it. That’s the issue is there's not enough time to do all the things we should do. We need to do so many things so we need to be critical and thoughtful about how we use our time, which presents new challenges. Because I also think we need to do lots of things in order for kids to think critically and challenge effectively. Thinking about my job in the school, I think my main job is to help them build skills. To think about this broadly, I think literacy skills are very important--being able to read, write, and speak in front of a group of people. Also, to listen really effectively, think critically about what’s happening, and question. I think all of those things are so important, and it’s really hard to do all of them. However, I think a school should be doing all of them. Hopefully parents at home are working on those skills too.
Building those skills can set you up to pursue your passions and navigate our world more effectively--to see things from multiple perspectives, which is a facet of thinking critically. We’re exploring history and politics, and that’s really important for students to think about multiple perspectives. I really like the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Single Story” TED Talk about stereotype and the way we think about people, and I think that’s really important. So, I show it the first week of every class. It gets at perspective and the complexity of other people, which we unfortunately often neglect, and we too often try to have a big understanding of a group of people we there’s so much going on there. When we start to get to know a group of people we can appreciate that and can change that, but wanting to come in with the mindset of learning and questioning rather than finding an answer. That’s something else that’s really important to me--the value of questions over answers.
For me personally, I feel really good about a class if I walk out of it with more questions, because that feels challenging and that it is more likely to inspire positive growth and change.
I also think that--to bring it around a little bit-- being able to read high level texts, write and express your ideas...it can help feed that critical thinking and questioning aspect. Maybe that didn’t necessarily answer the question, but I would like school to be doing all of those things.
That’s where I think it’s very hard because we only have so many hours and thus you have to be very purposeful.
That’s another topic, teaching in Denver at a charter school with an “every minute matters” system: in some ways that matches up perfectly with what I’m saying because you have to think about every minute critically and plan every minute. However, what I saw is that sometimes you get to the point where the adult is planning every minute of it and searching for things so specifically, that they forget to ask students about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling.. Sometimes you just need to press pause and have genuine conversations with the kids--ask how they’re thinking and internalizing these things, set aside the standards, to see where they are. That’s something that worries me about that type of model because it can take away from the student’s voice and their ownership of their education and the feedback from them and the willingness to adapt, like we need to do something different because you have concerns or this issue is really important to you. Sometimes schools can be so prescriptive and it’s hard to have that ability to adjust. You have to remember as a teacher that you need to be a great listener--responding to what they feel and what they want, rather than constantly making sure they’re hitting certain benchmarks, but getting more personal feedback from your students.
When you think about this ideal role of schools, do you think schools are currently doing this? For some kids? All kids? For no kids? What do you think about the role of schools currently?
I think a lot of schools are doing it. It’s hard for me to know percentage wise. Some schools are definitely not. I think schools are like anything--in that you have a lot of range and diversity. In some ways I think that’s really cool and exciting, but it also has tragedy. I think about the move towards standardization that’s going on, and my feelings are that it pushes towards mediocrity. Because it’s saying you have to do all of these things, but for a school that’s totally floundering that guidance might be really helpful; similar to how a new teacher might genuinely appreciate and benefit from standards and guidance. It might set them on a path towards effectiveness. For a school that’s innovative-- pushing the envelope and doing creative, incredible things-- it stifles innovation. It takes away some freedom. It has an impact that can be positive in some circumstances, but also negative sometimes, because it pushes everyone towards a mean. Which, I don't know. I don't know how I feel about that. I have mixed feelings about it...in some places it’s needed and in some places it’s handcuffing people to that model.
What do you think is needed?
I don’t have a concise answer for what’s needed so I’ll return to those same points: students who are empathetic, care for each other and other people, trust other people, yet are critical of systems. They think critically about the world and society and are healthy, hopefully because of that. They feel good and feel some happiness and balance. But those are all kind of vague ideas. I can’t come up with a clear description.
So I’m hearing that you think these are the core tenets that make a good education experience, and then maybe you judge a school based on those rather than other standardized metrics?
It’s really hard to label “good” or “bad” schools because it depends on the kid and what they want and what they need. Right now, a lot of “good” schools score well on tests and often have students who are very privileged and already have a lot of advantages and honestly, would probably do well anywhere. I don’t think there’s one way of having a class that’s better or worse either--so it’s up to that teacher, their style, and what the students need.
Students ideally should have some pride in being a student at that school. Hopefully they wouldn't drop out too often, and if they did maybe it’s because of external factors, but not because they hate spending time at the school or that they don’t think it relates to them or benefits them.
Another aspect of what schools should do is that they can help students define and think about their own goals--how they view success. Doing things like that is really important and can be really empowering. Hopefully schools are a place where students feel empowered and not oppressed or soul-crushed being there. In a dream world, school is also an integral part of the community, a hub for family members to come in and that they have a voice in what the school is doing and that they support it, so that the child is going through a cohesive, positive, unified day. Ideally, I see a school as a community center. I think schools are also really cool when they do language classes, healthcare, community outreach, and the school is seen as the center of a community. I think that’s really awesome when it happens, but it’s also really rare.
I think that schools should be engaging-- that kids want to be in the room and that they have fun sometimes, that it doesn't feel like a drag or a grind. That they are enjoying it and see some good in that. I think it’s really hard to do that for every kid--I don’t feel like I do that for every kid. That’s super hard. I’d love to, but I’m definitely not there yet. That’s a part of the whole balance-- you want it to be engaging and educational, building all those skills. That’s really hard and to do that for 32 diverse kids at the same time. It’s really, really challenging, but I think that some incredible teachers do that.
Why do you think we have schools as a society? Like, big picture, why do you think the government should fund schools?
I don’t know, I think there are a lot of legitimate theories. A big part of it is child care. Honestly. I think a part of it is indoctrination into the system. Those are kind of cynical. In a more positive way, ideally, I think schools are setting their students up for happy and rewarding lives. And so, providing some of the tools to navigate a complicated society and some of the thinking skills to live a healthy and happy life. I think that often doesn't happen.
One huge shortfall is mental health, it’s certainly touched on in schools, but it’s not something that a lot of schools have had success with, in taking care of the mental health of their students. I think a part of that has to do with resources. I think about that a lot in terms of the politics of education--I would advocate for more money and more adults in the building. I think that will make the most impact, to have more teachers so you can have fewer students in each class and you can get to know your students better and understand their needs better. And also more counselors and social workers to talk with them and to have that time carved out. I’ll go back to the “every minute matters” thing--when you say “every minute matters” and kids need to be in class as much as possible. Well, sometimes that contradicts itself especially schools that are suspending kids a lot because you’re saying every minute matters but then you’re sending them home. Secondly, “every minute matters,” but if the kid that has PTSD or is suffering with depression, than those minutes matter more for them to talk to someone that’s trained to help them with that, not sitting in the classroom.
That goes back to the hierarchy of needs--Jeff Duncan-Andrade talks about how so many kids in low-income communities are often suffering from PTSD or trauma, and they’re not able to sit in class and focus on math, because that’s not accurate with the hierarchy of needs. Their lower level and important needs aren’t being met: they're hungry, or not feeling cared for, or have had a recent trauma so they have a hard time figuring out what “x” is because it doesn't feel important compared to the other real life stuff going on for them.
Do you think other people agree with you on these responses?
I think some people agree with me and some people teach me new things--I think some of my answers in a year from now will change because I'll have different priorities. I think that’s really good, and I need that. I think I can find a lot of people who agree with some things I’m saying. Also people that can challenge me so I can think about them more because these are things coming off the top of my head.
Where do you think some people might disagree with you?
A question like that is hard, and a lot of these questions too, because there are so many people with so many different opinions. So, if I walk up to a random person in a street--each person is going to have a different idea about the role of schools or role of education. For me, I tell people I'm a social studies teacher and I don't like that term “social studies”-- it’s a very American term and it has a watered down connotation to it because it’s not a part of higher education. It’s not a legitimate department in higher education so it makes them feel cheesy. People think of their own social studies experiences, maybe about 6th grade, flipping through a textbook and learning about Columbus. I don’t think it brings up thoughts of rigorous or personalized education. I’m also not really a history teacher, but I used to tell people that when I was actually a history teacher in Denver, and it's interesting to hear how people react. I mean, first off, it’s interesting to see how people react to you being a teacher. I would say societally it's a job people pay a lot of lip service to, but it's also a slightly stigmatized profession. It’s a profession that people often praise you for being a part of , but a lot of people don't associate that with being successful.
And how people think about history, is they reflect on their own thoughts. So I like to hear about that. The guy who cuts my hair said, “oh, I loved my social studies teacher in high school!” So I asked him, “what did you like about him?” He said, “Oh, I can’t real remember. He had a lot of stories and cool attitude and I just liked being in his class.” I thought that was interesting. That’s cool that he had a great experience and liked school. I think that relates to the role a schools a bit.
One big belief of mine is that I'm trying to talk about skills a lot in my classes, because kids won't remember content no matter how much I care.
Like, I think about when I was in 7th grade, and I don't remember what I learned. I may remember a few topics, but that's probably most of what my students will remember. I’d rather prepare them for the rest of their lives in terms of building their reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking because those are things that they can continue to build on. People just have very different ideas of how that should be taught, which is interesting to learn about. I can’t really answer your question because I think different people have such different ideas about school and education.
It’s interesting to have students struggle with history and historical movements as concepts that don’t have a finish line. Like the Civil Rights movement. People think about it as this one block of time, and what is disheartening is that they think of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Rosa Parks sitting on that bus. But also realizing that those leaders are not what drove a movement, and that it’s driven by ordinary people, which can be empowering for students to think about and learn about. So they can think, oh I don't have to be MLK to change the world. I can just be me and work with other people around me to make change. I also think that the Civil Rights movement didn’t achieve their goals and that most movement don't achieve their goals. If they do achieve their goals, then the people that lead them then set new goals, because there isn’t a finish line.
Someone who is an activist, they have big successes but I don’t think that they’re ever content with the way things are. They move on to the next thing, which I think is exciting. That makes me think about things we learn about in history, a lot of them aren't finished yet. Georgetown University, for example, confronting their legacy with slavery. Legal slavery ended 150 years ago, but that conversation in a sense is just starting. I think that's really interesting that most things in life don't have an end point and to the same extent, most things we learn in history, you can't pin down a starting point. Every action has consequences. Sometimes students will say the Black Lives Matter movement started two years ago. Well the term “Black Lives Matter” started two years ago, but the movement, you can't find a starting point for it. History-- it’s so fluid and so challenging to find starting and ending points, and being happy with that I guess.
Tell me about an empowering learning experience you’ve had. What made it empowering?
I’m very lucky because my parents have a lot of formal education, and they have a sufficient amount of money and ability to research and place me into schools which they felt would challenge me. They always emphasized education and they had a solid understanding of the “in’s and out’s” of the educational system. I know that they really prioritized sending me to a school that they thought would be effective and I don't exactly know what that means to them. I guess, putting me on a path where I would have a lot of opportunities. So I feel like I've had a lot of empowering educational experiences and I like learning in different ways.
In my high school, we had discussion circles in our history class and the teacher sat with us in the circle--it was never one teacher at the front of the class and kids in rows. We just had conversations and that was an awesome way to learn...and it was really empowering. We would read a lot of primary sources and sit in a circle and discuss them. Guiding the conversation and them emphasizing our voices in our conversation, that was really empowering.
But to contrast that, I also had a teacher in college I liked that was really, really knowledgable about his content--the books were really hard to read because it was like Plato's Republic--and he never let students talk. He would just talk the entire time. But he knew the book inside out and he would raise such interesting questions, and he didn’t care what we had to say because what we had to say would be elementary. I ended up taking more classes with him, and I would sit there and try to write down everything he had to say. I liked hearing his explanations and analysis so much, and that was his style. And he was really good at it. I think the class would have been impacted negatively by students talking more. I don't know if there's a moral in those two different contrasting classes. In high school I guess you get to a certain place and need to develop those critical thinking and discussion skills. Because if a student in my college class wasn't good at critical thinking or listening, that class would have become nap time. But at age 20, that class was really fascinating.