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Learning at its Best

From Saving to Serving

A quick satire based upon how I first viewed my role in working with low-income youth (warning: it’s a bit sardonic, but it gets more transparent later):

“I’m part of this new program called Mentoring the Middle.  It allows those of us in the upper class to mentor middle class students so that we can pull them up toward a life of leisure.  I saw a PowerPoint of middle class kids eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and I’ll tell you it nearly moved me to tears.”

“I don’t know how you can work with those kids.  They seem so hard.  I’ve seen a few of them wander over into our mall and they are so loud and disrespectful.”

“It’s not their fault. They’re just underprivileged.  Some of them have never even been out of the country.”

“Where do they vacation?”

“At Disneyland.”

“Truly tragic. Never been to Paris. How sad!”

“They have hedges but no hedge funds.  And get this, you know who trims their hedges?”

“A Latino?”

“Nope, they do! They also cook for themselves.  How in the world can you expect them to get out of the middle class if they don’t even know how to manage hired help?”

“What if they are content with their place in life?”

“Sadly, some of them are.  So, I help them to see the bigger picture.  I help them to see what it would be like to attend an Ivy League college.  They just need to see what a life of wealth is like. Today I’m taking my mentee to the country club.”

“What will his parents say?”

“Oh, who knows?  You know those lazy middle class parents, always working or watching television.  Probably won’t care.”

*     *     *

At one time, I saw myself as the Savior of Students.  I believed that if I could just ask the right questions, teach the right strategies and work hard enough, I could single-handedly pull students out of poverty.  I was working for a non-profit at the time and studying neo-imperialism in my history classes.  Fueled by hubris and a vision of a regentrified downtown Phoenix, I saw each encounter as a chance to teach “a better way.”

A few months into volunteer work, my mentor pulled me aside and said, “Maybe this isn’t for you.  I mean, I thought it was.  I thought I saw a humble heart, but it seems that you’re less interested in serving than in saving.”

It clicked.  I began to see the layers of “White Man’s Burden” and old-style Progressive fix-up campaigns and missionaries tossing yellow Jesus-sponsored booklets and moralistic five-step programs designed to fix the ailing ghetto. I had been railing against Diet Coke in the middle east and missed my imperialistic impulses in downtown Phoenix.

I missed it.

I couldn’t see the beauty of the inner-city.  I couldn’t smell the fresh tortillas and sopa.  I couldn’t hear the corridos.  I couldn’t feel the warmth of a carne asada cookout on a late December evening.  I also couldn’t see the brokenness of my own suburban bubble.

The crazy thing is that I began to make a difference when students began trusting me with their stories.  It’s not so much that I “came down to their level,” so much as I knocked the artificial stilts out from under my feet and saw us horizontally as needy, beautiful, hungry humans bumbling around this world, trying to make sense out of life together.  I saw trust, not as a commodity to exchange, but as an action that begins in humility.  I saw love, not as a way to fix someone, but as a way to serve someone.

I slipped into the savior role somewhere in my second year of teaching.  It started with me playing pretending, donning the badass narrative of the silverscreen superteachers, wearing a mask that wasn’t my own until it began to suffocate me and my passion almost died entirely.  Months later, I saw myself as a different savior – the Rebel Reformer who would teach the students to wield their intellectual machetes against the edifice of indoctrination.

Each time, the students grew distant and resentful, recognizing that they had gone from people to projects; and each time, I ended with an apology and a chance to serve in transparency.

So, here it is in the open:

I don’t know how to fix education.  I don’t know the best way for every child to learn.  I don’t have the formulas.  I don’t have the steps.  I’m not Dumbledore or Gandolf or any other wise wizard.  (Though when I’m tipsy, I do start to talk a bit like Yoda) I sometimes dream up great ideas of what authentic education would look like.  But these inevitably crackle or fade or explode (or dare, I saw, dry up like a raisin in the sun) only to be replaced by something greater: reality.

In my classroom.


With my students.

Broken and beautiful and lonely and hopeful, walking this learning journey together.

And if I’m convinced of anything in educational reform, it’s this: the beautiful, broken journey only works if it begins as an act of serving rather than saving.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “From Saving to Serving

  1. You are just such a brilliant writer John. I definitely went through the saviour stage, and it wasn’t until I read this post that I got how that is wrong, that there is beauty in the lives of my former students, I missed it. I actually miss all of the things you describe, they remind me of my time in NYC, more than anything else.

    Thanks for this.

    Posted by David | February 28, 2011, 9:17 pm
  2. This is quite a beautiful piece, John. I remain in conflict regarding what to say and when to say it as the system goes on around me.

    It’s difficult to find the right time to serve by saying what you think others need to hear, even when they do not welcome hearing it or invite you to say it.

    How do we get people to hear this post, and do you think it’s important that they do?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2011, 9:15 pm
  3. John,
    This is my first reply as a member of the coop. Thanks for kicking my membership off with style. Your piece is full of grace. When we lose that quality, we become graceless and our feet trample through our classrooms and communities forgetting that behind every test score lies a child with real stories, hopes and dreams. Teaching is soul-craft, and sometimes we forget that our partners are people not just vessels.

    Posted by Jamie | March 2, 2011, 8:38 pm
  4. i love this John:
    But these inevitably crackle or fade or explode (or dare, I saw, dry up like a raisin in the sun) only to be replaced by something greater: reality.

    did you ever get a chance to watch schooling the world? i think you’d really like it.

    along the same lines.. i have been reading this..
    Argyris talks a lot about our defense mode. how even though we may have this great desire to do good (to save) – we ourselves block any learning/serving/innovating – by our pretense to defend and to maintain a distance from the raw.

    Posted by monika hardy | March 2, 2011, 9:26 pm
  5. Thanks John,
    You make me think about my own megaphone, and how much easier it is, outside of the classroom walls. I love your title and idea, going from a want to save to a want to serve.

    I am concerned however, somewhat with this approach, in that, I worry that once we take to the idea that we are to serve rather than to save, then do we risk slipping into conformity? I know, personally, if I was out to serve completely, then I would slip into the system in which I believe needs a complete revamping. If I were to be my authentic self within the schooling walls, I believe I would be fired within a week. So how do you balance this? How do you go from saving, to serving, while not conforming? I’ve seen the transformation you mentioned, only to see teachers slip all the way to conformity and become unable to speak, wanting to scream but unable to muster a whisper.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 4, 2011, 1:26 am
  6. Beautifully written, John. Enjoy your Lenten break from all things electronic and digital. Nurture that voice.

    Posted by Carol Mikoda | March 11, 2011, 8:35 am

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