Making A Difference Differently

A typical American snack vending machine
Image via Wikipedia

I used to want to change the world.

All of it, for all time.

No one ever accused me of thinking small.

I tried. I worked really hard at it.

I marched; I carried signs, candles, and bullhorns.

I boycotted grapes and aluminum foil. I sat-in.

I signed petitions, wrote letters, organized students, organized grown ups, made speeches, registered voters, voted, and more.

I did that for a long time. I still do some of that.

I’ve changed the world.


Not on the scale I wished to, but change none-the-less.

It happened in my first year teaching, and it was completely unintentional.

New York can get pretty cold in late autumn and as November slid into December 2004, it did.

One morning I noticed that none of my students had gloves, mittens or hats.

That afternoon I went to a dollar store and bought every stocking cap, pair of gloves, and set of mittens they had. I cleaned that store out. When I told the owner why and who they were for he gave me a generous discount. It still cost me about $75.

At that point of the year I was the push-in writing teacher for three of the four 4th and 5th grade self-contained special education classes. I taught 36 students and they all got either gloves or mittens and a stocking cap.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left.

The one special ed class I did not teach was the fifth grade class of students who had emotional disabilities.

Almost all of the students, and certainly all the poor, minority and/or special ed students in the NYC public schools have every reason to be extremely angry and most are.

The few deemed to have emotional disabilities are the ones who act on the basis of that anger in what is seen as a less than positive manner. These actions include relatively mundane things like yelling and cursing a lot, and less benign activities: hitting people or throwing pencils, chairs, desks or other students; generally putting people at risk of physical harm.

There were eight students in that class and one acted on his anger more violently than the others. At the end of my first day as a certified teacher I had to hold this kid, Tyrone, wedged between the cafeteria wall and a vending machine to prevent him from doing further damage to the face of some other kid who had somehow angered him.

I managed to hold onto Tyrone even after he knocked the vending machine over. I kept telling him that I had no problem with him and he did not have one with me. Eventually he relaxed and I let him go. By that time the other student had been taken to the nurse’s office.

I did not see Tyrone for a couple of weeks after that because he had been placed in a suspension school, about as close to being a juvenile prison as you can get without actually being one.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left. I was standing in the hallway holding the bag they were in when Tyrone walked by.

I gave him the bag.

Tyrone stared at me. I told him to look in the bag. He kept staring at me. Then he looked in the bag for what seemed to be a minute before he finally took out the gloves and hat.

As he stared at the items in his hand his shoulders began to shake. I realized he was crying.

I didn’t know what to do. Another fifth grade teacher, a gentle, generous and experienced giant named Mitchell Weintraub took Tyrone into his otherwise empty classroom.

I went down the hall to my next class.

Later that day Mitch filled me in.

Tyrone never knew his parents. He had spent his entire life as a foster child, moving from one placement to another.

It turned out that it was Tyrone’s 13th birthday. Tyrone thought the hat and gloves were a birthday present, the first he had ever received.

I cried when Mitch told me that and I’m tearing up again now.

I know that every thing that happens has an effect on every other thing that happens afterwards, and that the effect of any one occurrence increases exponentially over time.

That truth is the basis of the Butterfly Effect, a notion that the wind created by a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing will, over time, cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.

I didn’t know it was Tyrone’s birthday and I would not have given him a gift had I known. We did not have that kind of relationship.

Even so, that bag of warming things meant a lot to Tyrone.

It meant someone loved him.

The other evening, after sharing an intense day of science professional development and a pitcher of beer, I got into a heated discussion with a NYC Teaching Fellow second year teacher who saw nothing wrong with teachers being rewarded or fired based on the test scores their students receive.

I don’t think I sold him on the idea that the tests are unfair, easily manipulated and fail to test the abilities most people say they want students to develop in school, but I think I helped him realize that the most valuable thing teachers do can’t be assessed from year to year, from class to class.

The most important things that teachers do isn’t measured in a test or from year to year. What we do takes years, sometimes decades to come to fruition.

We change the world, one Tyrone at a time.

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23 Responses to Making A Difference Differently

  1. Dan Callahan says:

    Thank you for sharing such a powerful story. I wanted to say more, but it all seemed inadequate in comparison to this piece. So thanks.

  2. tsheko says:

    I feel the same way as Dan. Thankyou for bringing me back to what’s essential. I hope you continue to make a difference differently.

  3. Michael J says:

    Just like Dan said, thank you.

  4. Dan echoes my sentiments. I RT’d this as I believe it’s important to be read by others. This is such an important reminder of why we do what we do.

  5. fivbert says:

    Ditto all of the above! Keep it up!

  6. Thanks for the powerful story. You prove true my favorite quote about teachers: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” ~Henry Brooks Adams

  7. chris says:

    Lovely. Inspirational. Thank you.

  8. This story makes me think about all the times I listen to people talk about teaching as if I am a martyr. They say things like, “How can you stand not being able to discipline students?” or “I would never be a teacher, you have to put up with those kids.”

    In reality, we have the most important job in the world. Our job is to care about kids. We teach because we know an education is important, we love because the students won’t learn from us if we don’t.

    Your story is an example of why we do it, not for the fame and not for the money. You do it because you love them.

  9. Michael J says:

    I can only speak for myself.

    But I taught,I’m no longer in the game, not because I loved them. But because I love the activity of teaching.

    Now that I have a little time to reflect, I think that conflating me with them created lots of confusion in the decisions I made. If I had it to do over, I think I would have been a more effective teacher and a less stressed person if I had gotten it right.

  10. Patricia says:

    I am more than a bit outraged at the expectation teachers “make” students learn. We are not engineers and students are not automatons. I think if we respect students as human beings we must respect their choices to pass, fail, or make mediocre test scores.

    Having said that, I believe it is every teacher’s professional responsibility to do the very best they can to teach each and every student. It is our responsibility as a human being to treat students as human beings.

    Any system that fires teachers based on their students’ test scores is a pretty inhuman education machine. Any teacher that gets fired from such a system for doing the right thing in terms of teaching and treating their students as human beings is probably pretty lucky in the long run. Sad isn’t it.

  11. Michael J says:

    Perhaps the problem is that learning, by it’s very nature, is an opt in process. It’s in the nature of the activity that it can not be forced. The best a teacher can do is to be able to create an environment where that magical “teachable moment” occurs and then be ready to respond in real time. It’s a pretty hard job to stay focused and manage a bunch of active kids.

    Since you bring up test scores, I wanted to share an interesting-to-me idea. Suppose every school set aside 2 hours a day for test prep. Since fighting the test score evaluation juggernaut, why not go after it head on.

    That still leaves about 4 or 5 hours a day to do real teaching.

  12. Nancy says:

    Thanks, Dev, for this important reminder just as I start the school year.

  13. Mitchell Weintraub says:

    There were so many moments together when had to make choices that were not in the interests of academia. However, those hard choices we did make, were for the overall development of the children. We focused on honesty, integrity, empathy, and social skills that will the children realize they are the sum of many parts and not just what test scores sat they are. Thank you Devon, it is nice to be remembered.

  14. teachin' says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. I believe in the Tyrones of the world, and in our ability to make a difference to them.

  15. Nancy says:

    Thank you for reminding us that the unintended consequences of our actions can resonate powerfully. We can only hope we leave more positive than negative in our wake.

  16. […] Making A Difference Differently « Education On The Plate […]

  17. Gene G. says:

    Woinderful Story. Don’t ever stop trying to do what you think is right.

  18. Oksana Kulynych says:

    I remember your first year of teaching. It was not an easy year given the various assignments that were thrust upon you. Yet you somehow managed to roll with the punches. What I remember most of all is the caring and dedication that you showed. You didn’t just teach, you showed an interest in your students. I still remember the time you gave Tyrone those gloves and what an impact it had. You have made a difference in so many lives. This is what great teachers live for. Thank you and it was my privilege to work with you that first year.

    • Deven Black says:

      For those reading in, Oksana was my mentor and my lifeline my first year teaching. She and Mitch were my pillars of support in what was, how do I put this without sounding overly dramatic, an unusual rookie year.

      Oksana, I deeply appreciate your continued support and friendship.

  19. Monica says:

    Wow! Very powerful. Thanks so much for caring and for sharing.

  20. Deven-

    Thanks for the reminder that teaching is an art, and with passion and dedication they can change the world one Tyrone at a time.

    Here is something for teachers everywhere, hopefully something that will help inspire –

    The Art of Teaching:

    If you know of teachers starting the year, and not quite ready yet, please pass along this short essay.

    Jeff Goldstein, Center Director
    National Center for Earth and Space Science Education

  21. Michael J says:


    The blog is a great resource. Thank you. FYI: just tweeted,
    ToughLoveforX Dr Jeff’s Blog on the Universe. “helping parents and teachers make science an adventure MJ: Very cool!

  22. Kim Dorner says:

    wow. that’s great. thanks. I appreciate that it’s ‘one Tyrone’ at a time and not ‘one child’ I think the Cliche looses meaning. When we talk about real kids and real lives then it sticks.

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