American musician and songwriter Louis Armstrong wrote, “I hear babies cry. I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
As an educator, parent and adult functioning in our society, I can think of no higher ideal than this. It’s an empowering, humbling and challenging statement.
Many things in the world aren’t wonderful. We see disease, destruction and despair in the news every day.
However, having lived numerous decades, I can’t help but notice the significant progress humanity has made. Powerful despots are powerful no more. We no longer fear the real possibility of nuclear Armageddon as we did when I was a child. And, at the very least, we’ve written down the kind of world we hope to create in internationally accepted human rights documents.
I can work with my students to study where we are and how we got here. We can discuss where we might want to go, but I can’t tell my students how to get there or how long it will take to arrive. The truth is that I don’t know. The truth is that we must entrust our young people with the future. They, too, will likely never arrive at the ideals we’re striving for but they will bring humanity closer.
While it’s important to give our children the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics, it’s far more important that we spark their curiosity and encourage them to learn beyond what we can teach them.
It’s also vital to discuss the kind of world we want to create and model it to them to the best of our ability. If we want them to be respectful, we must show respect for all. If we want them to value truth, we need to be uncompromising in our quest for truth. If we want our children to learn, we need to be constantly learning as well. If we want them to self-correct, we need to humbly embrace our mistakes.
Teaching in the 21st century is challenging, but the best educators have always embraced these same ideals.
There are also many joys in being an educator. Having taught for over 30 years in the same community, it’s rare that a day goes by when I don’t see a former student. They are salespeople, roofers, mechanics, electricians, doctors, dentists, accountants, artists, actors and musicians. They’re my teaching colleagues and teachers of my children. They’re the parents of the students in my classroom. The magic of social media even allows me to interact with many who are far away.
When I see young people sitting in front of me, I may not know what they will become but I can confidently tell them they will discover their gifts and do great things. They will encounter a hurting world and change it with their goodness. I’ve seen this happen for decades, and I know it will continue, despite my limitations as an educator.
My former students have all learned so much more than I’ll ever know, and my current and future students will do the same.
When I reflect that the future is in their hands, “I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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