It’s hard for high school teachers like me to motivate teenagers, but I’ve found that—surprisingly—good old philosophy always gets them talking and thinking.
I start with Plato’s cave, delve into some Nietzsche, and touch on Camus. During one unit, I explain to my students Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The lesson starts simply enough: I draw a triangle on the board and explain the concept. I show them that if we don’t have shelter, if we’re hungry, if we’re cold, we can’t move up the hierarchy.
As the lesson continues, I watch. The students begin to look around the room. I can see, suddenly, a bit of empathy. A bit of compassion. They realize that kids who may struggle academically or socially are likely facing much deeper problems outside the classroom. Maybe the girl who doesn’t say much in class is financially supporting her siblings. Maybe the boy who doesn’t hand in homework is hungry. Maybe the student who has trouble keeping friends has been moving from couch to couch, without a permanent home.
I know the power of understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy because it is one of the most impactful lessons I have learned. It gives me a helpful lens to use when I deal with frustration in the classroom. It allows me to feel compassion and to understand when kids fall asleep in class, or when they don’t finish homework. It’s the reason I keep a box of granola bars in my desk. The reason I’m willing to extend a deadline or stay after school to work with students. And this year, it’s the reason I feel called to leave my classroom.
This choice may seem counterintuitive, but I promise there’s a purpose. When I saw that the Michigan League for Public Policy was hiring a communications associate this spring, I realized it was a chance for me to make a difference in kids’ lives outside my classroom walls. While teaching provides incredible opportunities to impact children, we are not often able to help them meet their most basic needs. I’ve struggled with this for years, and I realized that leaving the classroom might be the best way for me to make a difference to the children in my classroom.
This new role with the League will be the best of both worlds. I can still be with my students each day as I teach part time, but I will also be able to help the League fulfill its mission of addressing poverty and creating economic opportunity for all Michigan residents—especially our kids. I will still be ready with granola bars and hugs at school, but I’m eager to help our state’s kids meet their needs beyond that realm. I am so grateful to be part of the work being done here.
— Laura Millard Ross