Abel Barrera Hernández has worked tirelessly to bring justice to some of Mexico’s most marginalized communities. For his work as founder and director of the Tlachinollan Center in southern Mexico, Hernández received an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights last month.
That, coupled with the fact that Friday is Human Rights Day, got me thinking how I, as a teacher, must also fight for human rights.
Human Rights Day is a good time for educators and students to commit to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 62 years ago. It is also a good time to think creatively about ways we can build a better world for all people.
Article 26 of the declaration states, “Everyone has the right to education" and goes on to define education in a human rights context. One of our responsibilities as teachers is to turn the words of this declaration into deeds, to help our students embrace and embody its ideals.
I have a third-grader named T in my reading group who struggles to read. He is an African-American male, so he is one of the most vulnerable people in America’s public school system. T is small in stature but big in heart. So far this year, his greatest accomplishment (according to him) is the moment in P.E. when he became the first third-grader to climb to the top of the conditioning rope.
T can be silly and easily gets off task, two things that make him a tough student for any teacher. However, he is also highly motivated to learn. One day he asked, "Mr. Barton, can you give me some homework tonight?" How many times is a teacher asked that question? Just months before, I found that he could only read four words per minute from a story written for second graders.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that nearly a million students leave our schools for the streets each year. He reminds us that teachers are nation builders, and that the future of our country and the world will be built up or torn down by the students making their way through our classrooms. But for students like T, there is a still a great deal of work to be done before he can think critically, problem-solve, collaborate and communicate well.
On a personal level, I understand that my work is similar to the work of Abel Barerra Hernández. I borrow from his courage and commitment and dedicate myself to protect the human right to education for all of my students. This is vital for my school, where more than 90 percent of our students rely on free and reduced lunch and Medicaid.
On an academic level, I have to have high standards—especially for my tough students who get distracted. As Thomas Friedman said, we teachers are builders. The building is under construction. We all have a big stake in its completion.