Inspirational Educators – David B. Cohen – Capturing the Spark and Creating Fires

David B. Cohen – Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, CA – English teacher – Author of Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools

How long have you been teaching?

20 years

Why did you choose to teach as a career?

At the time I chose teaching, it seemed like the best option that would involve my passions and skills relating to being an English major. At this point, the reason I choose to continue teaching has more to do with my commitment to people and the community, and the “English major” skills happen to be a good way that I can do that.

Many people question if our current education system is working. What do you think?

As a whole, it’s not working well enough. We need to address serious inequities across various regions and districts. As a state we need to invest much more in supporting our students with more counseling staff, fully staffed and modernized libraries in every school, school nurses, and other improvements to facilities and resources, not to mention more teachers, better paid teachers, and improved systems for ongoing professional learning for all school staff members. And at the same time, we have some marvelously creative, dedicated, caring teachers and schools throughout the state. In the process of writing my book, Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools, I visited over 70 public school campuses all over our state, spending 63 total days observing and speaking with about 100 educators. I came away convinced that you could walk into any public school in the state and find some examples of excellence.

If you have been teaching for over ten years, describe the changes you’ve seen in students and the teaching profession?

The profession is definitely evolving for the better overall. I think teachers are increasingly able to provide students with a range of opportunities to learn from diverse sources and demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways. We’ve had to contend with education policies that sometimes push us towards too much focus on testing, but wise practitioners and creative school leaders understand how to respond to those policies without falling into the trap of excessive focus on pre-tests, benchmark tests, interim tests, etc.

Share your proudest teacher moment.

There’s a recurring one, anytime a former student who has reached adulthood tells me that they still remember something important, useful, or influential from my class. One of my former students has become an English teacher and has certainly given me plenty of reason to feel some pride as well. I think I’m most proud of some events I had my students organize where we engaged with the community around the study of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. It was gratifying to see high school sophomores recognizing their potential to be leaders in the community, educating adults about the book and the contemporary relevance of its lessons and themes explored in a variety of approaches and media.

What is the most important message about teaching that you would like People to know?

Teaching is incredibly complex and often unpredictable, even when you’ve been doing it for decades. Each class presents unique combinations of people, and it’s always an interesting challenge to pull together a sense of community in a new group, and then find ways to meet the needs of each student while also providing a cohesive experience for the entire class.

How can parents and Educators work together to better to ensure children are successful?

A combination of trust and humility. Assume the best intentions on both sides, ask questions to make sure you understand each other’s perspective, and for teachers, say yes when you can. Be flexible and understanding. Don’t worry about the “slippery slope” until it actually happens – it generally doesn’t.

What is the most important educational gift parents can provide for their children to help them be successful learners?

Listen to them, non-judgmentally, and get to know and understand your children as they are. I’ve seen many stressed out families over the years where the parents have a vision of what they want for their children, and the children don’t want the same thing. There are many, many, many paths to happiness and success, and many definitions of each. As the father of two teens, I know that isn’t easy advice to follow, but as someone who has worked with thousands of teens, I know it’s important.

What do you think is a fair salary for teachers?

I don’t know what the magic number is, but as a society, we need to take a comprehensive look at income inequality, affordable housing, health care, and student debt. Teachers have professional skills and are vital to the overall economy and community, and deserve to be compensated at a level that makes teaching an attractive career to enter and a viable career for the long-term.

Have you ever paid for supplies for your classroom?

I have, but rarely, and in small amounts. I’m fortunate to work in a district that takes care of these kinds of classroom needs. Teachers who do pay for classroom supplies are generous individuals, but I would advise them to complain loudly about the inequity of that arrangement. Submit expense forms even if they get rejected. Talk to the media. Share your story with your local chamber of commerce. It’s not right.

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