Christopher Emdin may be an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, but he took educators to church during his AFT TEACH plenary speech on Friday morning, delivering a fiery speech that gave his audience insight into how they could best reach all of their students.
When he got the invitation to speak at TEACH, Emdin, the bestselling author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too, says he debated how to frame his speech. Ultimately Emdin decided to focus on why educators are not reaching all students.
He began with the story of how he fell in love with teaching after volunteering to work with children in his spare time. Emdin, who taught math and science in New York City public schools for 11 years before his foray into higher education, distinctly remembers when he told his mother he wanted to teach.
“The look of disappointment was buried in my psyche. She had been convinced by the world that teaching had no value in comparison to what she thought I should be doing. I never reconciled the trauma of being seen as ‘less than’ because of the work I choose to do.”
That lack of respect and value for teachers concerns Emdin. He is happy to give teachers all the tips and strategies they need, but what he really wants is to create a new image and vision for teaching. Emdin wants teachers to champion their work and their craft without worrying about what society thinks. It all starts with educators looking at themselves in a different way, he says.
“Until we reconcile the trauma around how society views us as educators, we will not be able to teach and reach students. I want you to be radical enough to see that the way you’ve been delivering so far isn’t working.”
Emdin says that teachers have become excellent sheep. “Sheep are meek and lack boldness. They are just good enough to be controlled,” he said. The way Emdin sees it, teachers have lost the things that make them good teachers—hope, joy and passion. “In your first year of teaching, you reject the things that instinctively seem wrong, but, before long, you find yourself being a cog in a machine of dysfunction.”
He implores teachers to get out of their comfort zone, activate their intuition, and teach with fervor and love. “Stop following scripts. You can’t keep utilizing old models for new times. You are tethered to norms that are barely getting you through.” What we need, Emdin says, is “an extreme departure from the norm.”
[Adrienne Coles/Mike Campbell photos]