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Teaching As Service: A MLK Holiday Contemplation

By Stephanie J. Hull, Ph.D.

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Eric Clementelli works on a roller coaster lab with students at a STEM event at Newark Museum in Newark, NJ.

We are frequently encouraged to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with service—an ideal tribute to a leader, scholar, and spiritual teacher who dedicated his own life to service.

Dr. King is often quoted as saying, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” For educators, that answer starts with waking up in the morning. At the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, MLK Day is an important annual reminder of the kind of service that it takes to provide young people with genuine educational opportunity, the service that K-12 teachers and school leaders offer every day.

Study after study shows that the single most significant in-school factor in student achievement is the opportunity to learn consistently, in consecutive years, from an excellent teacher. Other commentators and researchers have found that strong, thoughtful school leadership is the key factor in keeping those excellent teachers teaching.

In short, no matter how many structural reforms to K-12 education the nation considers (and to be sure, many are needed), it’s still educators’ service day in and day out—their commitment, skill, and love of learning—that changes students’ lives.

It’s service like David Johnson’s lessons, delivered with personal knowledge as well as personal interest in their future, that brings math to life for his classes in Indianapolis.

It’s service like Carrie Russell’s work in robotics with her Detroit students that helps them discover a new sense of wonder, as well as a new kind of skill.

It’s service like Jarred Phillips’ efforts as a science role model for his biology students in urban Camden and rural Pemberton, NJ that makes students like Elena say, “You should have been our teacher all along, Mr. Phillips! I finally get it!”

It’s service like Eric Clementelli’s focus on science as self-discovery that enables this former Marine to teach his Orange, NJ students not only earth science, but also resourcefulness and creativity.

While still himself an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, Dr. King wrote,

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation is proud to celebrate this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by acknowledging the work of our Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows—and that of teachers and school leaders everywhere.

For a look at Dr. King in the classroom, circle back to this 2013 CNN story:  http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/24/us/martin-luther-king-class/


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