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Candid Canada Offers Advice to Harvard College Students

There is nothing more rewarding or frustrating than working in education, said Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.’75, to a roomful of Harvard College students in Senior Lecturer Kay Merseth’s Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education class. “I won’t encourage you to go into education unless it’s something you love,” he said.

Canada knows firsthand both the challenge and love of education, having spent the past 30 years as the founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a full-service community organization comprising charter schools, preschools, afterschool programs, parenting education, and employment and technology centers that currently serves more than 13,000 children and adults.

As a guest speaker in Merseth’s course – one of the first education classes offered by Harvard College – he candidly shared stories with undergraduates about the challenge of educating students in urban communities, and about what is needed for one to succeed at working in education.

“We are trying to figure out community engagement as Geoff defines it. And, as we are coming to understand in others’ work, [we should ask,] is it a really good strategy for increasing equity and excellence?” Merseth told the class. “How can we move both of those things forward together without compromising one or the other?”

In his talk, Canada touched upon many education reform topics of the course — particularly the achievement gap, the standards movement, and the bad rap that schools in urban, low-income communities often receive.

As he explained, there is a general unfairness in education today that is the result of the many struggles children face outside of the classroom, such as drugs, violence, and other threats.

“Millions of young people deal with this every single day. Sometimes we know the places – we talk about Detroit, we talk about Chicago, we talk about South Central, we talk about Harlem – but it’s happening in millions of places. Then we think, ‘Let’s figure out what we can do in schools to help those kids be successful,’” he said. “You know, I just believe in fairness. Is it fair for that kid to spend most of [his] childhood in fear — anxious, paranoid, depressed? … Are you telling me that what I do inside the classroom is going to be the great equalizer?”

Canada recounted how a 10-year-old student once told him off with profanity in front of other students. His response was to visit the child’s home in the projects that afternoon to tell the parents. When Canada ventured to the child’s home that day, the child was surprised to see him. Yet, what Canada saw beyond the stunned student’s face, was a home without even a couch, just a few cushions on the floor, and a barely-dressed mother, who responded with the same profanity toward the child. Canada said the child appeared embarrassed by his mother’s response. The visit provided insight into the child, as Canada now knew where he had learned the behavior. It was also clear to him that the mother did not know any other way. They both needed education: the mother later availed herself of the parenting courses through HCZ and the boy is currently enrolled in college.

Canada told the story to demonstrate the significance of not only addressing a child at school but also in his community.

“I think environment gives you clues about your likelihood of being safe and productive,” he said. “Just look around where you see trash, filth, and a sense of chaos around you. I don’t think young people just decide from here, there is a pretty good path to get to Harvard. I think you start thinking other things about your community and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

With so many obstacles in the way, children struggle to receive a quality education. Thus, when Canada structured Harlem Children’s Zone, he focused on revamping the outside community as much as the community inside the school.

Of course, what happens inside the classroom is important too. Canada stressed the significance of teaching, and particularly how great teachers are rare. It is evener harder, he said, to find great teachers who are willing to go to the “deep end of the pool” and work with children in struggling communities.

Canada didn’t encourage or dissuade students from entering the education field. In fact, he shared that even he almost didn’t enter education and had considered becoming a doctor. “My whole career was almost changed because people thought this field [education] did not require people who were really, really smart,” he said. “I’ve found nothing more challenging than working in this field.” Furthermore, for over 30 years, Canada said he was never upset about going to work.

He noted there was a real “science to education” and teaching, and anyone interested in entering the field had to be prepared to learn and put ego aside. “It is very complicated to do and you have to be at your best every day,” he said, acknowledging that you’ll admit to failure time and time again.

In closing, Canada shared what is perhaps one of the biggest challenges: simply getting students to pay attention. Some children learn the skill from their parents, whereas others never do. Canada admitted to one time handing out $5 to each student who answered a question correctly in order to engage the entire class.

“Sometimes folks have to manufacture that drive…,” he said. “And, hopefully, you will be the next ones to do that.”