Tyler, Campus Director, NY
Tyler is passionate about education and dedicated to helping youth realize and fulfill their potential. He currently works as a campus director for the national nonprofit Citizen Schools at a middle school in East Harlem. He is a Catalyst and was interviewed by his friend and our co-founder, Nicole.
Think about a child in your life that you care deeply about. Tell me a little bit about this child and what makes them special.
So, the student that comes to mind, his name is Deyzi. And he is at Global Tech Prep where I currently work. He is a 7th grader, and what I really love about this kid is his unabashed authenticity. I have never met a kid who is not afraid to be himself… He's super into dance and he's got some insane moves--and I'm saying that as someone with no moves whatsoever. He is sort of just dancing around the school all the time, he's just endlessly positive to adults and to his peers. It’s that consistency and this very sweet, wholesome, and curious nature that I think is really, really incredible about him.
His favorite subject is English, which unfortunately we don’t support that much in Global Tech. He struggles a little bit in math, so we do give him a lot of support there. He has a little bit of—he gets really heated up or he feels like things are unfair, like he has a keen sense of justice. So, when he starts going and feels like he's been wronged in some way, he will just talk for like 15 minutes straight until you calm him down.
When you think about what you want for him in his childhood, what would make it a good childhood?
I think I want him to get while he is at school because that's the environment that I interact with him most frequently. Really wanting him to feel valued and feel like he has people even outside of his immediate family who have his back in the school. And I also want him to feel challenged, while at the same time I want him to understand why the learning he has to do in the school is important And how it translates into success in the future, but also, as you touched on earlier, it’s important and for some strange we overlook this way too often: It’s important for kids to be kids as well.
The best way to improve lives for kids in the future is to stop constantly telling them that they have to act or not act in a certain way because it will be important in the future. That's paradoxical to me. Saying that over and over, it’s easy and it’s a lazy response to me. It allows adults to not think as deeply about why is what you’re doing right now is important. What are you getting from it right now? Let's stop thinking about who you are going to become one day, let's start thinking about who you want to be right now. Ultimately, it becomes really difficult to shift out of that mindset even as an adult: You're always working towards the next thing and it's hard to be present and happy with where you are at that moment.
I want Deyzi and kids like him to feel stimulated and interested in their own learning. Denise Pope, her big thing--you can call it Deweyan, but it’s also so obvious--is that if kids aren’t interested in what they’re doing they aren’t going to learn as well as they would otherwise. It's so obvious, but it so rarely happens for a kid. I don’t want to take it so far, I don't want to say that a kid should get up every single morning and say, "I'm so excited to go to school today!" I mean, very few of us, even in college when we're studying what we want or in our jobs, feel that way every single day. Most of a child’s experience in school, they should get excited about it one way or another. The way we make that happen is about having those adults in the building that understand kids and their different learning styles and interests, so they can create lessons where kids are actually going to be interested in what they’re doing.
When you think about Deyzi into his adult life, into is 30s, what is it that you would want for him then? What would make it a good life as an adult?
I do think that there are basic things that every person or student growing up to being an adult should possess. First and foremost, mental and physical health are at the top of the list. Of course, financial stability is very important, perhaps not the most important thing. But it’s hard living paycheck to paycheck unless you are very in tune with yourself and the planet in other ways to live a full, hopeful, and close to worry-free life. I would hope that he has developed a sense of empathy and intellectual curiosity. In reality, I think a lot of these things are linked in different ways. It’s hard to have one and not at least pieces of many of the others. It’s those things that would come up in any conversation with a parent for example. But on a deeper level as well, I would define success as him having the autonomy and awareness to determine what success looks like for himself. I don't think there is any universal definition of that success, there’s not really a specific image that comes to mind when I think of a kid like Deyzi, thriving when he's in his 30s or down the road. I think of him having the confidence, tenacity, and drive to create his own path, whether it’s straight and winding, that will allow him to be happy and grow as a human being.
I think an understanding on his part that success isn’t linked to only the material and having the openness—I’m talking a lot about these potential paths that might be open. Part of living in the 21st century is that we experience a paradox of choices, situations where we are crippled by so many choices, that feeling of disempowerment is incredibly common now. And I can imagine ways in which that feeling will get even stronger and worse in the future for kids growing up in modern America.
Again, going back to that word autonomy--feeling that sense of autonomy and that openness to taking positive risks. That's very Citizen Schools-y. I hope that he will have had enough adults, whether at school or at home, who have shown him that it’s worth it to take positive risks and that failure is okay. Which again, is something I mentioned before: Failure isn’t about getting something wrong, it’s not about falling down, because that happens constantly and you really can just call that learning. To me, failure means you’re doing something repeatedly when you know there is a better or another way to do something. For whatever reason, you are going about something that isn't going to help you succeed or overcome the challenge. I hope that he has the flexibility and the openness to live in that matter.
If that's the good life, then what do you think the ideal role of schools should be in achieving that good life?
To me, it kind of falls into three categories. And this could easily be like 12 different areas. First and foremost, I do strongly believe that in order for kids to be successful, school would ideally reflect the real world to the greatest degree possible. By that, I really mean embracing diversity in all of its forms. Kids who view the world through different lenses have to share the same classroom. Not only in this country, but around the world, humans are in a constant and infuriatingly slow struggle to learn how to cope with this and eliminate the endless -isms that constantly plague us. I think that as a society, and as a species even, if we’re going to take the next step and work towards a more inclusive and understanding world, it's so imperative that our children be exposed to children that aren't like them in any and every way imaginable. I think a school should have kids that are black, brown and yellow, female and male, economically advantaged and challenged, physically and intellectually impaired, math and arts-inclined. And even down the line, foreign-born and national, gay and straight. With the right adults in place and the right approach to diversity, these types of schools would not just foster tolerance and acceptance, which are great up to a certain point but are still inadequate, but eventually actual understanding and love, which is what we are ultimately going for in education. Some of us anyway. So, that's one, schools reflecting the real world.
The second thing I would say is schools that stimulate kids’ intellectual curiosity and help them be interested in what they’re learning in the moment, but also produce lifelong learners. Many of our schools do a horrendous job of this. Memorizing every word of Shakespeare, mastering Calculus doesn't mean that much if students don’t understand that knowledge is a web that grows larger and larger and expands through meaningful learning experiences. Once most people understand that and see that window open a little bit to that world of knowledge, realizing that there’s so much out there that can totally grip you and you can immerse yourself in. That becomes a good drug in and of itself. Gaining that understanding helps students understand that learning shouldn’t really ever be finished. We’re never finished products and life is one big learning experience. That is philosophical, maybe geared towards one's life outside of school in many ways, but that love of lifelong learning--not just math content, but also learning how to deal with others better, learning how to be more tolerant and understanding--can and should start in school. Especially when it's not necessarily present in a child's community or in his or her home.
The last thing, I touched on this already: A school just has to be that safe place where kids feel valued, are driven, and challenged. The vast majority of kids cannot be deeply invested in their own learning without these things. We talk all the time about how it’s important to enjoy your job and to have clear pathways to advance and challenge yourself at work. School is so bad at that. Kids are sort of admonished to perform well at school, because it's important for their future, but they’re judged too often by columns of tests on a piece of paper, which is supposed to reflect who they are and who they will grow into. It’s so vague and in many ways and meaningless. It's so often leads to a lack of engagement.
How do you think schools are currently doing in reference to this ideal role?
I always hesitate to paint with too broad a brush. I’ve now worked in three schools and studied numerous other ones, and they seem so radically different. Broadly speaking, there are way too many students being failed. I don’t think that the majority of schools are doing these things. There are definitely a number of reasons for that. I also don’t think it’s hopeless at all. We need to get better at sharing best practices. I just think about how infrequently at any of the three schools I worked at, outside of formal inspections, how infrequently any other people from other schools came to visit. Whether it's connecting with a principal, observing classes, talking to kids. Of course, there's plenty of cross pollination--teachers and administrators move around.
I believe I work in a school right now where a lot of these things are really happening and that the vast majority of adults in the building are on the same page in teaching these kids holistically. They understand that they’re coming to school dealing with a variety of challenges that they learned in profoundly different ways. It can take a lot of time to figure out what the best ways are. But, the school that I work in, as well as I think they're doing this, is experiencing political pressure from the outside right now from people who have different philosophies about how large schools should be, how learning should take place, how much focus should be on test prep. It’s frustrating because I don’t think those people really know or understand anything about a school like the one I work in, that in my opinion is doing well. Far too many kids are still being failed, but I certainly think there are plenty of educators who get it and I hope plenty of school communities that go about teaching children in the ways I described.
Why do you think schools aren't doing what they should for kids?
Probably different reasons for different schools. I think leadership is absolutely huge. The more I work in schools the more I realize that schools are the most social places on the planet—it’s just people interacting with people all day, whether it's adults and adults, kids and kids, or adults and kids. It’s just understanding how to approach others in ways that are not going to turn them off, that are coming from a place of inquiry. I’m trying to say that the more time I spend in schools, the more I realize it’s really about empathy. I see high levels of empathy in the people that I work with—in terms with dealing with other adults in the building and how they go about their practice of teaching and building relationships with students—I feel that there isn’t enough of an emphasis, not enough cultivation of traits like empathy, which is where I think everything needs to start.
Considering I think schools are just these social beehives, these social colonies, the status of the teaching profession itself in the U.S. is really problematic. It’s just astonishing to me how teachers are degraded by so many people and how little respect they receive in society, when these are the people whose hands we’re all placing the well-being of our children for hours and hours every day. They hold the power to make or break a child, to inspire or depress a child. I think there’s a reason most people can remember their best elementary school teacher, or their worst! The off-handed comments about a lack of natural talent in math, or academic praise or about a character strength--that literally becomes part of who we are. We can all remember those comments. Those teachers who really helped us out, or unfortunately really held us back. It's so shocking, given this enormous responsibility we give teachers, the way we speak about them and the position we put them in our society in the U.S. It is really troubling and it's felt throughout the school, all the way down to students as well in many cases. I’ve definitely seen that come through as well, and to me that's something that really has to change in order to get to where we need to get.
Thinking about these three levels of questions--a good life, the role of school, and how schools are currently doing--do you think people agree with you on your responses? Why or why not?
Yeah, I think most people would generally agree. I think it depends on who you’re talking to as well. I would say that many people who do possess large amounts of privilege don’t necessarily see a system that is as broken as it is. It’s kind of a philosophy of schooling that’s so disconnected from what I think it should be. A lot of it honestly comes down to who the person is and what kind of background they’re coming from. When you have a certain experience in school and you’ve been given a lot of chances, or have gone to a high-performing school with a lot of resources, and you have emerged as a financially independent adult who is successful...You then send your kids to similar schools, and you're confident that they are going to grow up and be similar to you and are going to be happy in the ways in which you define happiness. It’s harder for people who have experienced success in whatever way they choose to define it to want to change the system that much. Students, especially socioeconomically disadvantaged kids, I think that school has failed a lot of those people who are now adults. Many really failed to see, for one reason or another, what the point of school was. Not to just put people in two large camps, I do think that it’s those people who haven’t been served by the public education system in the U.S. that would probably agree more with what I’ve said.
Why do you think we have schools as a society?
Their value is obvious, as one of the oldest public institutions we have on this planet, is a gathering place where we can cultivate whatever "X" society deems to be important to learn, character strengths we choose to develop. We bring all these kids together--and part of it in some ways is that it’s more efficient to centralize all of that know-how and expertise, and pass that on to students and train them in ways that will help them make successful adults.
I think ideally schools should be even more than that, than just a library of knowledge where kids are seen as empty vessels. That they're being filled. Really what schools should be and what good school are, are centerpieces of a community. It's not just buildings where kids are being sent every day and saying what they learned that day to their parents. Good schools are inclusive schools that just don’t talk about engaging the community and engaging parents, but that actually do listen to what the community says it needs and wants. And works with that community to create those changes and constantly morph the school into a reflection of the fabric, the cultural fabric of that society. It really needs to do both.
What was an empowering educational experience that you've had? What made it empowering? It can be outside of K-12 or formal schooling.
I’m glad that you said it could be outside of K-12. Not to say that I never had one empowering moment in my K-12 career, but one of the reasons I’m so passionate about education was because I had a very underwhelming K-12 experience in a school that went about it the wrong way. For me, I didn’t really gain a deep appreciation or passion for learning, and understand the role that meaningful knowledge could open up until I got to college. I think one experience that really stands out to me, where I felt really empowered, was my sophomore year at Brandeis and I did a summer program called the Justice Brandeis semester.
We did a lot of things as part of the 10-week program, but the centerpiece of all of it was that we did a lead soil study, we measured the amount of lead that was in soil in different yards in Wooster, Massachusetts. Because even though 30 years ago, when lead paint was bad, it still lingers in many areas, typically in poorer neighborhoods. In most major cities in the U.S., you can take a map of the neighborhoods in which soil and home lead is the greatest, put it next to the poverty levels in communities around the city, and they are virtually identity. That's incredibly disturbing to me.
Basically, we would drive to Wooster in a van three days a week and just going around and knocking on doors, explaining to people in the community what we were doing. Actually taking dirt, testing it, and what we were trying to find out is if the work on this nonprofit called Wooster Roots, whether their strategy of bioremediation--planting flowers and having them absorb the lead in the soil, and then disposing of the flowers--whether that was effective or not. So, it was an incredible learning experience, getting out into the community, talking to these people, and then working with professionals to analyze the soil and figure out how best to ultimately present our results to the community. When it actually came time to present, we found that the what the organization was doing wasn't that effective.
And it was a really intense presentation, we got a lot of pushback from the community. That entire experience from beginning to end, was more real than anything I had learned before. It was the first time I realized why school, for lack of a better way to put it, is important. Actually being able to interact with this community who was affected by this issue, that was something that I just never had any exposure to before. That's a moment that really impacted me. It got me really interested in environmental issues and just honestly, helping people. I think that was how I narrowed it down to a career working in outreach.