Cyrene, the Wise

“Do you think it would be okay if I wore my earring?” I whispered.

Arching an eyebrow, he turned and looked at my ear, then me, dead on. This bull of a man, almost mythic in stature, hunched his shoulders back toward the front of the room, snorting quietly.

In the basement cafeteria the August air was cool and damp. Like the rest of the faculty, he gazed to the front where the black-clad principal was welcoming all of us to the start of the school year. Our folding chairs had been set so that a wide pillar, painted yellow and blue stripes, partially obstructed my view of the principal. That was okay: at the moment, I was far more curious about those to my sides, the faculty, whom I had just joined.

This was my very first hour as a teacher and I was about to meet two people who would transform my life. One, Cyrene, the bull whom I would learn was anything but, would become my mentor, then friend, in ways richer than the finite evocation of language can render; the other, a woman whose seemingly infinite stretch for the goodness in life riveted me then as it does now, would become my partner, my wife.

As an educator, my conscious paradigms for how young people learn and develop began at that high school, and Cyrene was the first and best mentor of those paradigms. Not always when I asked, though.

“No. I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” he offered later, spearing watermelon from a paper plate.

Already, he had begun to guide me: from the perceptions of those clad black, I supposed; also, I was soon to learn, from naively signifying gang affiliation in a mid-1980s, rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood. Reflecting urban migration patterns, Dan Rostenkowski’s was one of the last Polish homes in that East Ukrainian Village neighborhood. By August of 1986, mostly Latino and African American students enrolled in this Catholic high school.

Like East Ukrainian Village demographics, over time my paradigms about learning have shifted, in ways subtle and not so subtle. Initially, I mimicked the ways in which I had been taught as a high school student. I utilized mostly teacher-centered direct-instruction, take notes on what I say, teach-to-the-test instructional strategies. Lots of teacher-talk, worksheets, practice tests: I thought teaching was getting students to replicate the knowledge I shared with them. One favorite strategy was teaching English grammar through a strategy virtually unheard of today, sentence diagramming. I had to do it; why shouldn’t they?

Teaching and reflecting, often with other teachers, including Cyrene, changed that. During my first five years, I came to discover, regrettably, that roughly one third of the students learned everything well with the teacher-centered approach (likely, that tercile would have learned well with any approach!); that one third learned most things well on that day but often couldn’t recall or apply their learning over time; and that one third simply didn’t learn much of anything well.

After five years teaching, I decided to attend graduate schools. I continued to reflect on and study how I might improve student success. On the way to teaching at my first public high school but still reluctant to switch my entire approach, I looked closely at a wider range of teacher-centered strategies, including those using a fairly new technology — computers.

However, the more I explored other teacher-centered strategies, the more Cyrene’s voice turned over and over in my head, “No. I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” Remember, he would say, the heart of the learner precedes the brain. All learning begins there. His extraordinary effectiveness as a teacher of discrete skills and higher-order thinking, through an approach that honored each young adult, not simply as a member of a group of young adults that information was delivered to, remains the most significant mentoring I’ve received. Cyrene’s approach blended a sincere humanism with the teaching of discrete skills and higher-order thinking.

My subsequent twenty years as an educator of students across multiple socioeconomic, racial, and standardized test-proficiency settings have affirmed his tenet: young people want to be recognized and affirmed in this complex world, then taught. When taught, far more young people engage far more fully when the learning is student-centered. Student-centered learning honors the young person and his or her innate ability to construct knowledge, largely through independent critical and creative thinking. Today, I utilize a preponderance of inquiry-based, Socratic, or creative student-centered approaches, with some teacher-centered approaches garnished.

For the last several years, Cyrene has lamented the direction of both public and private education, where society’s corporate approach to education, the get-us-numbers-at-all-costs approach, values test scores over the development of the young person’s heart.

Most recently, my friend Cyrene has even gone so far as to encourage me to leave education.

Snorting, I cover my ears and respond like any good mentee. “No. I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

Dedicated to all mentors of teachers
who, like Cyrene,
understand that teaching begins in the heart.