My mother used to enjoy telling everyone that when I came home from my first day of school, I told her I was going to be a teacher. That was 1959. I never changed my mind. I never wanted to be anything else. My journey began by teaching anyone who would humor me—siblings, cousins, kids in the neighborhood—anyone who let me practice my craft with a piece of chalk and a sidewalk, and in time, a real chalkboard. Funny that now, at the end of my career, those memories should come flooding back. It would make more sense to think back to 1975 when I did finally achieve my childhood dream and become a teacher, but clearly that was just one of the many milestones in my career; the journey began long before that and never ended.
That’s the way it is with most teachers; it is in our DNA. We plan, rehearse, and perform several shows a day, thriving on the energy of our audience, hopefully seeing questions form in invisible bubbles above our students’ heads as they ponder what they are hearing and seeing, always looking for an opportunity to go just a bit deeper, and convince those who would often prefer to be somewhere else, doing almost anything else, that this—whatever this is—is exciting and important. We adapt our material to meet a range of skill levels and look for any opportunity to infuse creativity and revise our lessons based on what is on students’ minds and what is happening around them. For me, nothing was more energizing and exciting than introducing young teens to the power of literature. To watch students explore the human condition through characters and conflicts and to respond in terms of their own experiences and growing understanding of the world around them with all of its complexity, mystery, and uncertainty was magical. I credit my junior high English teacher with lighting that fire under me as we read and discussed Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.
My story is not unique. Every teacher I’ve ever met has a story of how they came to the profession, how they accepted the responsibility and embraced the challenge to prepare the next generation to take their place in society, capable and confident. Teachers instinctively understand that for what amounts to but a few moments in time, we are a tremendous influence on young minds. What we do with those moments matters.
For the past 14 years, I have had the great fortune of serving as the ADL Project Director for Echoes & Reflections. In that role, I have had the honor of meeting and working with teachers across the country, hearing about the ways that they are helping students think about difficult topics and themes associated with the Holocaust. With every passing year, teachers have shared with me that the senseless acts of violence that have traumatized our communities—most recently the tragic loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Synagogue—have made their jobs increasingly more difficult. They ask themselves how they can help their students make sense of events that they themselves are struggling to comprehend. But, they find a way. They understand and embrace the urgency. They put aside their confusion and sadness, and spring into action like all “first responders” do. They know intuitively that they must provide a safe environment where students can ask questions and engage in difficult conversations. They know how important it is that soon-to-be adults know how to separate fact from fiction and build their understanding of events based on sound evidence. They also know that they must encourage and model an optimistic attitude—one that sends a strong message that communities can heal and thrive despite overwhelming grief when good people act in positive ways. Teachers know that those first moments after tragic events matter, perhaps most of all.
These are difficult times. We have seen a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hate. We have watched as facts have been cast aside and loyalty to one group or another has become the lens with which we see the world. We have seen social media take the place of in-person relationships and institutions strain to inspire confidence in light of widespread cynicism and disillusionment. But, we must also remember that there have always been difficult times and there will always be challenges. The students we are teaching today need our guidance and attention as much as yesterday’s students did, as much as tomorrow’s will. We must remind ourselves that every year there are new students; we do not keep teaching the same ones over and over, and, in the end we have only a moment or two to add something to their story, something that we hope will last and have meaning.
It has been my honor and privilege to be an educator. I begin my retirement with a great sense of pride but also with unflinching confidence that our students will continue to learn and thrive because of the many dedicated teachers who make magic in classrooms across the country every day. It couldn’t be any other way…it’s in our DNA.
About the Author: Deborah A. Batiste has been the Echoes & Reflections Project Director at ADL for 14 years since the program’s founding in 2005. In addition to being one of the key content developers, she has conducted professional development programs to effectively use Echoes & Reflections in the classroom in 40 states and the District of Columbia, reaching thousands of educators and community leaders. In 2019 she will begin her journey into retirement.