Teaching passion, dignity

By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

This piece first appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal.

In the days after the election, I heard a quote amongst all the political analysis that kept surfacing for me again and again. Richard Russo said, in regards to the economic issues that weighed so heavily for many voters, that “there is a difference between a job and work.” The speaker went on to elaborate that a job brings income, while work brings dignity, and losing the opportunity to engage in dignified work that makes a person feel a sense of purpose in life can feel like a type of death.

As an educator, I am blessed to feel a sense of purpose and dignity in the work that I do. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not tough, that I always enjoy it, or that I never struggle. It is tough, there are days when I don’t enjoy it, and I do struggle all the time. But I never question whether or not what I do matters, even on my worst day. In fact, sometimes it feels that what I do matters so much that small things like a note I wrote on a student’s paper or a single email with a parent who is worried about her child can keep me up all night. But I never lay my head down on the pillow with fears that my time is wasted or that I am not doing something important with my life.

If I lost my job today, I would worry about money as most people would, but the biggest weight on my shoulders would be the loss I would feel to not get up in the morning and go to work to do something that mattered.

In the last year, I have added another layer to the work that I do. With my co-founder, Tarik Nally, owner of Kale and Flax here in Louisville, I am building an educational startup called Curio Learning. Along with waking up each day and going to teach teenagers how to debate and write essays, I also have the pride of being able to create a company whose goal is to support other teachers like me. And this experience has illuminated for me why it is more important than ever to teach my students the importance of finding a sense of purpose and dignified work.

My new education in the world of business, entrepreneurship, and the tech industry has taught me a component of teaching that no education program or the decade of teaching had taught me before: That the best thing we can do to ensure our students grow up to find dignified work that brings them joy and purpose, is to instill in them an entrepreneurial spirit.

Every Friday, my students work on an independent project called Genius Hour, named for the initiative Google instituted in their company where employees spend eighty percent of their time on their day to day routine and twenty percent pursuing a passion project. Many schools locally and nationally have embraced this idea and have given students the opportunity to break from the regular school routine and mandated curriculum to pursue more personalized projects that matter to them.

Right now, I have students learning to play instruments, building businesses, creating documentaries, using their hands to build things, and cooking family recipes. They are reaching out to community members and organizations to interview professionals, volunteer their time, and serve as interns in careers or paths that interest them. I am teaching them about writing professional emails and how to speak on the phone, skills that they often don’t learn until they’ve graduated college, if then. I have come to look forward to Fridays more than any other day (and not just because it’s the day before the weekend), but because I am inspired by the passion these students feel for the paths they have laid out for themselves. They have a sense of pride in their work that doesn’t always translate to required curriculum. On Fridays, they are young entrepreneurs learning skills that traditional curriculum just can’t teach.

Image credit: Courier Journal

I have been building Curio Learning for almost two years, and we still are just beginning. I have had to take risks, fail, and start over more times than I can count. I have had to make calls, send emails, and follow a trail of meetings over coffee that led to the next meeting just to get to the right audience. I have had to problem solve quickly, follow my gut, yet use reason, and step outside my comfort zone in ways I never could have imagined. I am proud of the work my partner and I have done thus far, and I want my students to feel the same pride, to struggle through the same skills, and to grow in the same ways I have through this experience. I see now more than ever that a changing economy and culture demands that our students have these skills.

I had a student a while ago who was struggling emotionally, so much so that she had withdrawn from school several times over the course of a year. But after a field trip to a local design shop, she was so inspired that she reached out to the shop on her own and asked to come work for free for them over winter break so she could learn more. A student who I taught in an honors English class and was bright but unmotivated signed up for my creative writing class and came in one day so excited after staying up all night to write a short story. And a student who turns in every single assignment late, if at all, shows up on his own on the weekend to work in the school garden. These are not the students who I worry about, although I’m sure their parents have.

These students are passionate. They have a sense of pride and dignity in the work that they love, and this pride will see them through when they fail, when they’re stuck, and when they have to be persistent in accomplishing a goal. The students I worry about the most are the ones who can’t tell me what they’re passionate about, who fear risk and failure, the ones who see their future path in the way they’ve been taught to see it: get good grades, go to college, and get a job. As the election has taught us, a job is not enough. We need to help our young people learn to search for meaningful work and to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit that will keep them going even when they want to quit.