Why I'm not a teacher anymore: Reflections from our Founder

by Jamie Ehrenfeld
Originally posted via Medium

My heart broke as bad as any breakup when I settled into the reality that I would no longer be teaching my kids at Eagle Academy. My feelings about the school is profoundly colored by my feelings about schools, but I found more positive than problematic. For the young men I’ve grown and built with over the past three years, the confines of a traditional school structure were never enough to waver my commitment to them. But on the other side of that position, I’ve brought to consciousness the internal conflicts I’ve had with being a public school teacher.

I’m deeply troubled by many of the conditions faced by students attending most New York City public schools. The combination of circumstances leading to this state were not caused by any person I’ll meet, or any one person at all for that matter. Rather, they emerge from centuries of traumatic conditions inflicted on one another in the name of expansion and ego. To this day, people are punished for being poor — after decades of openly racist banking and lending policies preventing the development of generational wealth, many of my fellow white people only recently acknowledge the persistence of these ills with the rise of overt white nationalism and xenophobia. Following the dehumanization of slavery and subjugation of sharecropping, redlining practices have created a vicious cycle of poor children of color receiving substandard education resources while their parents are employed by 2 or 3 companies, each paying less than enough to live on.

In 2018, it’s never just one characteristic that will disadvantage someone — rather, it’ll be any combination of identities. Globalization has created unprecedented blending of cultures the world over. The mecca of modern globalism is none other than the place I call home, New York City. Nowhere else on Earth, to my knowledge, will an underfunded public school need to print basic materials in a dozen languages originating across the planet.

The phenomena of need has been on my mind a lot lately. My latest gig has been babysitting for a family in Greenwich Village, where just about all of the children’s fundamental needs are met. Experiencing the neighborhood I once resided in as a student from this perspective has illuminated the vastness, the distance between, and the subtleties of the two Cities New York for me. The ways we’ve hurt each other have become so embedded into our homes and our identities, that we struggle to affirm our selves in lives we choose for ourselves.

It’s been weighing heavy on me these days. I can feel that deep pain surfacing worldwide, and I imagine many of you can, too. I write these words to crystallize my reflection, and all that led me here. My soul will always be that of a teacher, and my love for the souls guiding young ones will always abound beyond my expression. But reconciling these reflections and realities has nearly driven me out of my mind.

I have always considered myself tough enough. I’ve actualized and proven it time and again, weaving through childhood tragedy and familial fallout. I’ve endured pain, self inflicted through my subconscious to lead me through necessary lessons to reach my present (and future) state.

Toughness, like anything, has its assets and drawbacks — and they’re intrinsically connected to the relative definition of need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorically breaks down functional needs that humans experience into a nifty pyramid, building upward toward a peak human state. Toughness protects us, thus inherently limiting us. It’s of real value when we’re in need and we wouldn’t survive without it in some form, but it limits us when our fundamental needs are met. The limits of toughness have been ones I’ve aspired to break down, but I’ve found my own limit in recognizing the actual need for it in so many instances. Toughness is about ensuring safety and security, and it often comes at the expense of love and belonging. Ask anyone taking a break from dating after a hard breakup.

At the base sits physical, irrefutable human needs: water, food, warmth, rest. A long enough spell deprived of any of these things will cause a human to die, their bodies not built to be alive absent them. Next comes feelings of safety, belonging, and love. Safety straddles the threshold of physical and emotional in a deeply meaningful way, while love and belonging transition us into the unique social dynamics of humanity. Animals of varying species are known to coexist with others like themselves, and the emotional capacity of other mammals has been scientifically studied. Feelings of love and belonging are humanly discernible, and are experienced by different creatures in their own ways.

My roommate and I lovingly project distinct personality traits onto our cat Maya, which are of course informed by observable behavior. There’s no saying with certainty that she means what we think she does when she acts a certain way — but it’s almost unimaginable to think she doesn’t hiss at us to send a specific message to fuck off. We’re the ones making the meaning for ourselves though, and our human perception and emotional synthesis affirms our understandings of those we can’t verbally communicate with.

 Cats showing love. Obviously.

Cats showing love. Obviously.

After love and belonging, we have esteem needs/feeling of accomplishment, crystallizing up into self actualization: fulfilling a sense of purpose and achieving one’s potential. Our metrics of success are often dictated by our environment and communities, but show themselves in how well we’ve secured our foundation-level needs.

Our collective issue lies in the inability for humans as a species to not actively destroy one another and our environments. Why would we act against our own best interests? Do we not want thriving generations of humans beyond ourselves?

It’s not quite that simple, but destruction emerges from a need unmet. Our subconscious minds are compelled to destroy others’ feelings of love and belonging when their own have been violently taken from them. Yet if our conscious mind engages with our foundational levels in an honest and loving way, we can construct self esteem and actualization in ways that don’t feed past wounds in order to stand. This is possible for all of us, and this possibility is what inspired me to become a teacher. It’s no one element that creates an environment adverse to self actualization, but most teachers would agree that school is not set up to do that, and that has never actually been its purpose. While our best teachers construct the most vivid and engaging environments within them, schools originated to acculturate children on how to exist within a specific cultural traditions: to pass down a set of norms, rules, and values. In an ideal human state, we can align our values to norms and rules in a way that benefits humanity collectively and honors the core values of every cultural tradition. And as many wise ones (most notably attributed to Abraham Lincoln) have said, the best way to predict the future is to create it. In order to be able to look any children, especially my beloved students, in the eye, I must construct value in the world beyond that mirrors how deeply I value them. We’re not there yet. And while my soul will always be that of one… I am not a teacher anymore.