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Your Child Should Become A Teacher

Brett WigdortzFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2014

If you want to know why your children should become teachers above any other profession. If you care about children’s education and want to know how to make a difference in a child’s life. If you have a glimmer of a desire to start a social enterprise and want to know how you can do it. If you want to lean how a boy from New Jersey ended up heading the largest social change movement in the UK and got an OBE to boot……… then please watch this video.

Brett Wigdortz has led Teach First as its CEO since its launch in July 2002. Teach First is currently the 3rd most prestigious graduate recruiter in the United Kingdom and is working to close the achievement gap in England and Wales between children from low-income backgrounds and their wealthier peers. Brett wrote the original business plan for the charity while working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and then took what was originally planned as a six-month leave of absence in February 2002 to develop and build support for the idea. Previously he has worked as a consultant, a journalist and researcher.

He is originally from New Jersey and has an Honors Bachelors degree in Economics from the University of Richmond and a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Hawai’i. He currently serves as a trustee of Future Leaders. He is also the co-founder and trustee of Teach For All.

In 2007 Brett was named the UK Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year and was awarded the 2010 CASE European Leadership Award.
In 2012 Brett won the Charity Times Charity principal of the Year and the Institute of Directors London and the South East Director of the year in the Public/Third Sector.
Brett is proud to have been awarded an OBE in the 2013 Queens New Year’s Honours list for Services to Education

Brett’s book “Success Against The Odds”, a candid account of the first 10 years of Teach First, was published in September 2012.

So, what would you all say if your son or daughter wanted to become a teacher? And what would you say if they wanted to focus their careers in the most challenging schools, with children from the lowest income families? Well, I could tell you what my Jewish parents said when I dropped out of law school, but I don’t think I should, they might watch this.

But now I am CEO of Teach First as you heard, which was founded in 2002. We are currently the largest graduate recruiter in the United Kingdom. Next year we will be hiring 2,000 new teachers, responsible for one third of all new teachers in low income schools in England and Wales. And we are creating a movement of tens of thousands of British leaders focused on closing the education gaps between children from wealthy and low income communities.

Now that sounds very grand, but let me bring this down to earth for you and tell you the story of two brothers I met during two of my hundreds of visits to schools over the last 12 years. One of the brothers is currently 24 years old right now, the other one is 17 years old. Now they both are boys with a very caring mother, they both grew up obviously in the same house in West London, under the flight paths to and from Heathrow, and they lived in the same council estate in that West London neighborhood.

However, they spilt paths as teenagers, when one was failed by his teachers, and one was led by his teachers. The first one dropped out of school at age 16, the other one has gotten excellent GCSEs. One sadly was swallowed up by the street and is now in jail after doing a number of petty crimes. The other one has just started, a few months ago, studying engineering at the University of Manchester. One went to a school which, when I visited in 2003, was just such a very, very sad place; apathy, chaos, just so little learning was taking place in that building. If I had to describe it in one word I would say it was empty, it was full of people but it just felt empty. The children felt very unlucky to be there and the teachers working there felt very unlucky to be working there. I asked the head teacher at the time his goal for the school and he replied, “I want to keep the kids off the street.” And he failed at that very, very awful goal.

Now, as Jews we have a collective understanding about the hardships of our own slavery. I believe very strongly that that brother was just as tragically enslaved. However, he was enslaved because the adults responsible for his education abdicated on that responsibility. Now the other brother went to a school which I visited in 2012. It is a very very energizing place, one of the best state schools in England, a true Beit Midrash, a house of God, where every child there is treated as precious and as holy.

Like most children now leaving that school, he has a long list of qualifications and he has a strong belief in his ability to succeed. When I saw him leaving for university last year, he said to me, “You know what’s really sad is that my brother is actually a lot smarter than I am. He was just failed by his school, he never stood a chance.” He was right.

Two brothers, two schools. Except they weren’t, they were the same school, a comprehensive in West London I visited many times over the last 12 years. What’s happened? Why was one child lucky and why was one child unlucky? Well, like many schools, the school has changed. It has a new building, it has some new governors, some new curriculum, but that’s not the heart of where that change came from. The heart was, unlike in 2003, under a new head teacher now, all the teachers there now believe they are classroom leaders, and they are focused on leading the children under their guide to success.

There’s a commentary from Maimonides that supports this view of teachers, even to the point of seeming to contradict the Ten Commandments. He writes, “you must respect the teacher even more than your parents, for even though the parents bring a child into this world, it is the teacher who exposes the child to learning and wisdom and, by doing so, opens the door for him to the next world, the world of spirit, of creativity, ideas, self-worth and eternal life.”

The story of Rabbi Zusya gave me an even deeper understanding of this commentary. Many of you know the story of this great Chassidic Rabbi, who once had a vision of what the angels would ask him in the afterlife that just drove him to tears. His followers couldn’t understand it, they said to him, “Rabbi Zusya, what’s wrong? What’s wrong? You’re so pious, you’re so scholarly and humble, you’re so doing mitzvot throughout your whole life, you’ve helped so many of us. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?” He turned his gaze to heaven. “I’ve learnt the angels aren’t going to ask me, why wasn’t I a Moses who led my people out of slavery, the angels won’t ask me, why wasn’t I a Joshua who brought my people to the promised land. Instead, they’re only going to ask me one question, they’ll ask me Zusya, Zusya there’s only one thing we wanted from you, why weren’t you the best Zusya you could possibly be? Why didn’t you take full advantage of everything God gave you?”

The best teachers – and I have literally seen this hundreds of times over the last 12 years – the best teachers are those who see themselves as those leaders who help those young people, each and every one of them become those Zusyas that they are meant to be.

These teacher leaders have two things in common. The first is a clear vision, they have massive aims but they precisely define what those aims mean for their students, both academically and holistically. The second is they equip the students to believe in themselves, they think big, they take ownership of their learning and they multiply the leadership in their classroom by making leaders of all of their students.

So why is this important to us as Jews? Well, every year we repeat the Pesach story that commands us to teach our children, and every day we say the v’ahavta that commands us to do the same thing. But I don’t actually believe that’s anything special. There’s tons of tribes and nations throughout the history of the world where fathers and mothers have passed things on to their sons and daughters. What is special though, is the idea that educating children is not limited to within any one family. Instead it is a Jewish belief that it is our responsibility to ensure all children get educated.

It’s important to remember; almost 2,000 years before there was compulsory universal male education in England, Israel already had this system. Yet true universal education, universal education where every child gets an excellent education, regardless of who their parents are, regardless of what family they come from, well that’s not where either country is today.

Britain is, unfortunately, a global leader in educational disadvantage and Israel is not far behind. More than any developed country in the world, a child’s educational success in England is determined by their parents’ pay cheque. In England, only 16% of kids on free school meals from a low income family go on to university, as opposed to 96% of those in private schools. If you’re from a low income family, your chances of getting into Oxford or Cambridge are one fiftieth as much as if you went to a private school. For every one child from a low income family there’s 50 children from private schools that get into Oxford or Cambridge.

Now, does anyone here seriously believe that children from wealthier families are 50 times more likely to be bright than those from poorer families? This is wrong. It’s unfair, it’s a travesty, it’s absurd. Our Jewish tradition demands that children should not be lucky or unlucky in their education depending on who their parents are, what their family is, but this is the situation in Britain today and this is what has to change and it can change.

The present isn’t like the past, and the future doesn’t have to be like the present. This is another one of our core beliefs as Jews: the world can be improved; we live in a world where change can and does happen.

Now, look at this photo for a second and tell me, do your notice anything odd about this photo. It looks like a nice group of people having a pint, but I want you to look closer. This photo is an anachronism. For hundreds of years people smoked in pubs. In 1957 a report came out showing the dangers of second-hand smoke, but it took another 50 years before this changed.

Does anyone remember how normal it was to smoke in a pub a few years ago and how odd it would seem today? My mother recounts going on family trips down to Florida as a child and driving through South Carolina. She stopped at rest stops like this and was very confused by what she saw. The idea at that point of an African American being President of the United States, again, would have been as absurd as a Martian in the Oval office.

Now, people knew this was wrong, they knew slavery was wrong, but this was the reality until people decided to change it, and my mum and uncle went to march in Washington with Martin Luther King 50 years ago. And in that family living memory change can happen.

Now, we have seen all sorts of human problems like second-hand smoking or fundamental human rights like racism, and we know there are historical wrongs that we are trying to move past.

What are the future historians might see in England in 2014 as the historical wrongs we are perpetuating today. You know it could be environmental issues which is another speech but I really believe very strongly that future historians will really struggle to understand how we could live in a wealthy country that allowed some children to be lucky enough to get a great education while other children were unlucky enough not to and that everyone thought that this was a normal state of affairs that we could live with.

So we know this is a problem, we know social wrongs can change, but the next question is how can we make that change happen? Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. In the Aleinu it says, “l’taken olam b’malkut shadai,” ‘the world shall be perfected under the reign of the almighty.” But the question is why do things bend towards justice? Why should the world be perfected? Who bends it? Who perfects it? And the answer to me is simple: I think we do.

My Jewish belief tells me, the universe doesn’t just bend on its own, we have to bend it. This is part of a unique partnership between humans and God that has gone back to Abraham and even before. It’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to bend this arc in the right direction, inch by painful inch.

And that brings me down to the essence of why the future can be different from the present. And why children, our neighbours, won’t have to worry about being lucky or unlucky in their choice of school or teachers in the years to come.

Because we can change things, we can make things better, we can heal the world and we are the only ones that can. This is the super-power that God has given us as human beings.

12 years ago, I went to Oxford University and I met one of the careers advisors there. He told me that year there were 5 or 6 of his graduates who went off to teach in a low income school. He thought maybe we would be able to get 7 or 8 who would be interested in such a thing. This year, over a hundred are joining the program to teach in these schools, it’s the most popular graduate choice for Oxford graduates.

At the time I thought, why does he think this? He says he’s an expert, but he doesn’t know the reality of his graduates. What he doesn’t understand is that everyone wants to be a superhero, there’s no better options available, there’s nothing better for people to do. To make the future different from the present, what can you do that would be better in your life than to have that opportunity.

To not use this superpower to be cynical, to believe that things can’t change, to believe, in the case of our schools, that the world only has so much talent in it, that it’s spread by parents’ wealth and it’s just a given that some children can’t learn and some children can learn, depending on where their families are. To me that’s the most non-Jewish attitude imaginable. I see it as preventing every Zusya out there from being the Zusya they were meant to be.

However, being a superhero is hard, being a superhero is a lot of work. It’s true leadership and working under the assumption that not only can change happen, but you can make it happen, no matter what the obstacle in front of you.

One great teacher I recently saw, described the job as an impossible selection of good decisions. He describes the frustration that, as a teacher, you can do any number of good things, but it’s the true challenge to work out what is that magical culmination of actions that will have a life-changing impact on a diverse group of students with complex needs. His point is, you can never give up trying to help each and every child make the most of their inner life.

When I visit great classrooms all over the country, and see great teaching, see children’s futures being changed, see, in the words of Maimonides, young people being exposed to the next world, being given the tools to be the best Zusyas they could possibly be, that’s where I see divine handiwork. I feel the presence of God, real Ruach Ha’kodesh, as strongly as in Shul during Kol Nidrei or even during the birth of my children.

Similarly, when I visit schools where there’s bad teachers, where the teachers, the adults with this holy responsibility of leading young people, have given up on their students, schools where they are limiting their students, where they are abdicating on their responsibilities, I find them some of the saddest places on earth. There are Zusyas out there that are just being lost to this world. And there is a void there that is just devastating to witness.

Ensuring every child is lucky enough to go to a great school with great teaching is not some add-on luxury for our society, any more than ensuring every child is lucky enough not to be born a slave, or never to know the beauty of their own possibility. It’s our responsibility to change this.

Until every child gets the education we expect for our own children, then we have to know we have failed, not only as parents but also as Jews. And as Jews we must always remember that for thousands of years, the person held in highest esteem in any village, any shtetl, any kingdom, any town, has always been the rabbi, the person who understands the inner workings of God and the universe better than anyone else. And of course ‘rabbi’ doesn’t mean priest, ‘rabbi’ means ‘teacher.’

So when your sons and daughters come home and say, “Mum, Dad, I want to be a teacher. I want to teach in the most challenging schools out there. I want to work with children who need the very best teaching possible. I want to make a difference.” I want you to say, “kol hakavod, I have raised a mensch, you are my superhero.”

Thank you.

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