"I teach kindergarten. It's the most intellectually demanding thing I've ever done. And it's also ethical work. I make decisions constantly, all day long, that impact the well-being of children and the direction their lives will take. It's really quite awesome. Say, maybe when you decide you've got enough money and want to do something really useful with your life, you might consider teaching."

Those words come from William Ayers, a professor of Education at the University of Illinois (Chicago) and one amazingly gifted author, editor, speaker, and teacher. He started teaching in 1965 and, since then, has made his mark on teacher education, progressive pedagogy, juvenile crime, civil rights, alternative schools, prison education, etc. I don't know when he was born but he's still alive, so if you really wanted to know, you could call the U of I and ask him yourself. What's important is that his books, which are all non-fiction, have inspired me both professionally and personally in more ways than I could list for you here. His work with the juvenile justice system and urban school reform aside, he has an amazing philosophy on learning and teaching.

It is not that his words are so poetic or revolutionary. He has no great prose, no imaginative storyline which pushes the reader to new heights and literature to new standards. It's just that he says what I'm thinking; he presents his ideas, without apology or compromise, and inspires others to do the same.

The very first book I read in my Teacher Education program was To Become A Teacher, for which Ayers is credited as editor. I fondly remember sitting on the floor in my room, unwrapping my books with eager anticipation. Before I'd even reached the articles which filled the clean, white pages, I stumbled upon an honest and passionate introduction. By the time I was done reading the four pages, my stomach had tied itself in stubborn little knots. His words had both moved me and shocked me; I was as compelled as I was horrified. Ayers had confided that...

"Teaching is difficult, demanding, draining work. It is easy enough to mess up, to crash, to have a day when everything runs off the track again and again. The children become surly and argumentative, or, for no apparent reason, one day the students seem to take a collective step back from you, standing behind some invisible but resistant barrier. Or a project you developed and invested in finds no interest among the young, captures no one's imagination or commitment. Or you realize that you are in a rut, that no spark is generating from your efforts, that everything is becoming dull and ordinary, and that the students are bored and you are uninspired. And on and on.

But there are also times in teaching that are transcendant. There are moments when students are truly engaged in finding something out because it interests them and not because they are cringing in front of the grade book; instances when a child responds to kindness with kindness or to an appropriate challenge with reasonable effort; spaces where the authentic voices of children can be heard, their hopes and fears can be expressed. Connections are made, minds are stretched, horizons are expanded--all this can create real exhilaration. When teaching is done well, it resonates the deepest parts of your being. It satisfies the soul."

My guess is that his words mean very little to someone who isn't passionate about teaching and education--but they've made all the difference to me. And, in case you're wondering, here are some more of his works:

  • To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (1993)

  • A Union of Professionals: Labor Relations & Educational Reform
  • (1993)
  • To Become a Teacher: Making a Difference in Children's Lives (1995)

  • City Kids, City Teachers: Reports from the Front Row (1996)

  • She Say, He Say: Urban Girls Write Their Lives (1997)

  • Teaching Toward Possibility: Maxine Greene & the Unfinished Conversation (1997)

  • A Kind & Just Parent: The Children of the Juvenile Court (1998)

  • Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy & Education Reader (1998)

  • Teacher Lore: Learning from Our Own Experience (1999)

  • Simple Justice: The Challenge for Small Schools (2000)
William Ayers is also frequently published in periodicals and on the web. Look for him in the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College Record and The Cambridge Journal of Education. You might also find him in other books about teaching methods.

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