By Claude Kaberuka
“Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela once famously said.
This quote may lead you to consider questions like:
- How can students use education to recognize the value of their identities and expand possibilities for themselves?
- How can teachers use the classroom to imagine a better world?
Margaret LaRaia has been addressing such questions throughout her career. After earning her degree in English Literature from Smith College, Margaret thought she wanted to be a professor of English Literature and she started her Ph.D. She quickly realized that this wasn’t for her and went into local politics.
“Everyone said I was too nice,” she said with a chuckle. “But what they meant was I was too naïve.”
She then changed her mind about politics and wanted to focus on education. This interest was ignited when she was in local politics. She still wanted to do something valuable for the world and this led to her becoming a high school teacher at Needham Public Schools located in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts.
“I loved teaching and the energies of teenagers,” she said of her time teaching English, filmmaking and the humanities. “I appreciated their honesty and how I became a trusted source for open dialogue.”
Teaching for seven years (1998 – 2005), Margaret was able to see first-hand how impactful educational experiences can help students to truly learn, as opposed to just go through the motions. She believes it is important to connect with people, expose students to innovators outside the classroom (both locally and internationally), learn how to work together and incorporate real life experiential learning, like for example, using math to build a garden.
“How much is our education system trying to control students as opposed to giving them control over their own lives and celebrating what they discover through that?” she asked.
Teaching can also be emotionally draining.
She explained: “You have to figure out what kids need and at the same time know how to care for yourself so that you can be healthy for the next day. Self-care as a teacher can be very hard because people don’t respect teachers in the United States. You have to cultivate your own sense of self-worth and inner strength because you will have many conversations with other adults who think your salary is your worth.”
In 2005, her career shifted as she moved into educational publishing. She worked with the educational researchers to learn about the best ways to help kids learn and how teachers can use the classroom to re-imagine a better world.
She has also worked as a consultant for Georgia’s Department of Education and last year assumed the role of Director of Learning for Narrative 4, an organization that believes the shortest distance between two people is a story. Narrative 4 uses the Story Exchange to help students understand that their voices matter and that they have the power to change, rebuild and revolutionize systems. She helped define N4’s education strategy and is overseeing implementation.
How Educators Can Make a Difference
Margaret offers a view of education through many different lenses. I was particularly interested to hear about Margaret’s experience on kindergarten - high school education.
Here was the advice that she shared on how to be successful in education:
Give students a great sense of control over their lives.
Help students learn how to make their own choices.
Create learning that is informed by and centers on the stories of your students.
It was terrific to learn from someone with Margaret’s experience. I can only imagine how it is inspiring to create a curriculum based on amplifying students’ voices. Learning about this, I am now actually thinking about how I can do the same in the future as part of my career.
I always had this idea that teaching is all about providing content in the classroom and giving instructions to students. Interviewing Margaret, I got to learn that education is much more than this. Education is all about enabling students to build themselves. It is finding the best ways to help kids know they can make a difference in a world that is full of problems.
Teaching is a good career that can better the entire world. With education, we can combat and minimize problems. I look forward to doing my part to contribute to a positive world and living out the words spoken by Nelson Mandela and acted upon by educators like Margaret.