William Allen Young, actor, orator, teacher and humanitarian, was the keynote speaker at the Professional Development Day (PDD) on August 29, 2013, at San Jose City College. Mr. Young was an inspired choice for the keynote, holding his audience spellbound with his unique mix of humor, bracing advice and unforgettable life-lessons. His exhortations to teachers, in particular, to go beyond their job descriptions to transform the lives of their students resonated powerfully with the attendees.
Teachers, Mr. Young said, don’t do what they do for money. On the first day of class, teachers should ask their students two simple questions: “Why are you here? What are you doing with your life?” Most students enroll in community colleges to discover themselves, to find a purpose in their lives. They have just come out of high schools and are in transition. But they are searching. They don’t know where to go or how to get there but are desperately hoping to find a teacher or two who will guide them without looking down on them. They are not in the top 10% in their high schools. Stanford, Yale, Harvard and other ivy-league universities get the top students. Community colleges get students who have deficits. Many are trying to balance studies, work and family. It is important to instill a sense of purpose in them right at the beginning of the semester because, according to a study, as much as 54% of the students in California's 112-campus community college system are stuck in it for six years without a degree, without any prospect of transferring to a 4-year college or without landing a good job. They are pretending to be busy, taking this or that course while, in reality, simply drifting “They are hiding in these 112 credible hiding places,” Mr. Young told the gathering. “It is your responsibility to out them and to guide them toward a meaningful life.”
A teacher is not just a teacher, Mr. Young said, but also a guide, a mentor, a counselor, all rolled into one. If all teachers do is hand out syllabi on the first day of class, lecture, announce there will be a test the following Tuesday and leave, they have already lost more than half their classes right there. “You have to go above and beyond your job description. You are not here merely to disseminate information. If dissemination of information is the goal, a computer can do a better job and technology can replace teachers. You have to ask yourself: What is it that I do that a computer cannot do with less?”
Mr. Young recalled people who changed his life and instilled in him a sense of purpose when he was a student at a gritty public school in South Central Los Angeles. There was the janitor who took him to task if he found him loitering in the hallways, making sure he understood the importance of taking education seriously. There was the principal who treated him with respect but who also demanded discipline and excellence. There was the teacher who recognized his gift for debate and pushed and encouraged him until he became a debating champion.
When he joined the US Marines, there was the drill sergeant who shook him up by asking, “Private Young, what are you doing here?” The sergeant saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself. I realized I was running away, hiding from the real world.”
As soon as he left the Marines, Young went back to college and applied himself, excelling in his studies and never looking back as his career took off.
But the person who influenced him most was Joan Walker, his mother. Abandoned as a child in Anderson, South Carolina, Joan was a straight-A student until the 8th grade when she had to drop out of school because her mother was dying and she had to care for her siblings. Eventually she married and raised seven children.
“We were in Los Angeles then. My father was ill. My mother became a maid because she was a dropout in society's eye. She had to clean, sweep and mop other people's homes. But never for a moment did she let us forget the value of education. When it came to cleaning our own tiny home, she would make us get on our knees and repeat after her, as we scrubbed and mopped and cleaned the floor: Wax on, wax off, get a good education before you get old/ A good education is better than gold/ Gold and silver may wash away/ But a good education will never decay.”
Young never forgot what his mother tried to teach her children in those tough times: the enduring value and power of education. And although he faltered now and then, as everyone inevitable must, this lesson became the guiding light of his life.
You are the gatekeepers, the game changers, the miracle workers and the mentors for your students,Young told his audience. “The problem with public education in America is that it is built on a platform of condescension where teachers assume that they know everything and students know nothing. Know that your students are already smart. It is for you to convince them of their value. They are unfocused and they have doubts but they can leap and soar if you respect them and demand the best from them. Don’t lower the bar. Don’t expect less from any student based on his or her race. Don’t teach based on assumptions. Don’t overcompensate because the student happens to be Black or Latino or from any other group. If a student turns in poor work, be disappointed, be angry. Tell him or her, ‘I will not accept junk. How dare you?’ Look them in the eye and be honest. Respect your students. Support them and believe in them. When you do, you will have turned on a light, ushered in an epiphany, created lightning in a bottle. Then your students will produce great things for you. Even more, they will have discovered their purpose in life.”