By Donald Halsing
Angela Salas, provost and vice president for academic affairs, presented her speech, “How to Change the World,” as part of a World Teachers’ Day event sponsored by Education Club Oct. 9.
In addition to her presentation, she answered questions from students and faculty.
According to Lilly Sullivan, Education Club vice president, the club annually hosts a World Teachers’ Day event and invites a guest speaker “to reflect on the important role teachers play in all of our lives.”
Salas encouraged future teachers in the room to “lead lives of purpose” and search for humanity in all people.
She said, “Purpose and service, giving more than one receives, and sharing knowledge, mission, and skills are all ways to change the world.”
Salas said the world she encourages the audience to change is their own.
“I’d like to suggest to you, or remind you,” she said, “your capacity to be a positive influence in the world is circumscribed or constrained by the quality of your own interactions in the world.”
She instructed future educators to provide their students with the tools they need to survive in a difficult world.
However, Salas described the challenge of changing the world effectively when students feel themselves to be “drowning in insecurity,” working in tough political environments, or doing their best to maintain relationships with other people.
Salas listed false notions of when “life will begin” that students tend to accept.
“When you earn your degree, life will begin,” she said.
“When you get your first job, life will begin,” Salas noted.
“When you get the job you want, as opposed to the job you have,” she noted, “life will begin.”
Salas elaborated, listing marriage, growing a family, and buying a house as points when college students expect life to begin.
Emphatically she said, “Life has begun, and we are all in it – for worse and for better.”
Salas said decisions that shape a person’s character are already made – even before they leave college.
The standards young teachers set for themselves are demanding and often “incredibly lonely.”
According to Salas, teachers often follow models of perfection, but rarely appreciate “how they grew into their greatness.”
She spoke from experience, highlighting the use of her title, “Distinguished Scholar in Residence,” as a marketing tool to attract students to a conference in 2017.
The students at the conference viewed her as a “sage,” according to Salas, not due to her years of study – rather, it was “magic and a strong contact list” that made her admirable.
She described the guilt and isolation teachers feel, questioning whether they were too hard on a student or regretting taking an education career path at all.
“You feel alienated,” Salas said, “either unworthy or misunderstood, and neither is a good place to stay for very long.”
Salas initiated a conversation with the audience highlighting the isolation students feel, which parallels the alienation educators experience.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, SGA president Matty Bennet asked Salas for advice future educators can use to approach students “who don’t identify with the people who are teaching them.”
He said students of color or with different sexual identities might feel alienated in the same way teachers feel isolated.
Salas joined the University in June 2019 as the new provost after former provost Linda Vaden-Goad retired. She said during the 1990s, she often advised students of color.
She said the faculty were afraid of “saying the wrong thing,” and students believed members of their own department with whom they did not identify “could not serve them particularly well.”
In many cases, Salas was able to connect students with advisers in their own field.
She said students had to have faith in faculty members who “don’t look like them or don’t seem to have their same lived experience.”
Salas said a “sense of human empathy and compassion bridges those divides.”
She added when life is easy, “That’s probably when you’re about to fall in a hole.” This is because all the conflict in life has been removed at that time.
Salas said educators should do their best to fill a need when they see one.
She shared an anecdote about two classes she taught. Each read Toni Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye,” which culminates with the main character’s impregnation by her own father.
The first class held an open class discussion, but the second refused to talk. Salas said, “The guys had their caps pulled down” in front of their eyes.
She instead gave the students a writing prompt to hear their thoughts. “The level of anguish those students had about what they’d read … these guys with their caps pulled down and their arms crossed said, ‘I’m so ashamed of being a man.’”
Salas had initially thought the second class was far removed from the novel, when in reality, they just didn’t have the words to express their emotions.
“If you can have a room full of people who are reading a book that’s mandated to them,” she said, “and they’re so devastated they can’t speak – what’s a better tribute to an author?”
Mary Grassetti, chair of the education department, asked if Salas had a favorite memory of a teacher.
Salas said she experienced a sense of affirmation, or “I see you,” in every case.
She sold shoes during college, beating her quota as soon as possible before retiring to the stockroom to read.
“I read so much literature in the stockroom of Macy’s – particularly my first semester of college – and that’s where I was happy.”
She was “checking the boxes” for her pre-law program. But Salas was approached by an English professor who said she could be a lawyer with an English degree. The professor thought Salas really belonged in the English department.
Salas said, “That feeling that someone had somehow seen me – it was pretty heavy stuff.”
Her second moment of being seen came when she found out her best friend was the son of the college president. She became good friends with the president and asked if he would write her a letter of recommendation for law school.
“He said, ‘I will write you a recommendation for anything, but I don’t think you should go to law school. I think you should get a Ph.D. in English.’
“And I went and got a Ph.D. in English,” she said, “solely on the fact that he said that to me.”
Salas said moments where someone’s true self is seen are “bits of grace that we give people.”
Noticing students’ personalities and inner selves can be a useful tool for educators. “When people feel like they’ve been seen,” she said, “they will do more work.”
Salas offered advice to students in the education field who might feel alienated during their careers as teachers and “world changers.” She compared those who leave a great positive impact to those whose mark is inconsequential on a person.
“Let me assure you – anyone who has ever done anything worth admiring or emulating went through hell to do it.
“The stuff that remains,” she added, “is the result of hard work, dedication, failure, humiliation, hope, and gut-wrenching bravery, which looks an awful lot like terror,” she said.
Those who don’t make much of an impression upon you, “want you to think as they think, do as they do, and ratify their decisions with your obedience or your complacence.
“The energy they could spend making the world a better place is spent making you think that you’ve actually gone down the wrong road. And the fact that you’re alone right now means that you’re wrong and that every moment of struggle or hesitation you endure is proof that you should trim your sails and fall into line,” She added.
“Hard as it is,” Salas said, “I hope you’ll ignore them.”
In order to change the world in good ways, Salas said it is required for future educators to protect their characters and their souls.
She said it is easier to protect one’s character when one has family or friends to lean on.
But when teachers feel alienated, and surrounded by nobody else, “You have to be your own A and B team,” Salas said.
She advised students to know what they stand for, and to believe in themselves.
“Keep moving forward,” she reiterated.
Salas said sometimes, it is important to step away in order to know how to move forward. This comes in the form of distractions or hobbies.
“Some people knit, and others tinker with things,” she said. “These tasks, and others like them, have the advantage of allowing you to see that you’ve accomplished something.”
Salas said these activities take people away from “troubling moments.” They prevent educators from becoming preoccupied with worries about their performance or teaching environments.
She personally uses runs and hikes to “remove” herself from difficult moments and to see her way through them.
Salas has walked portions of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a network of pilgrimage routes in Spain, a total of three times.
She found the trips paradoxical. The pilgrimage is a quest for “spiritual renewal and change.” However, Salas was annoyed by the difficulties of the trip – from slow walkers to closed bathrooms.
Although the physical training she did was fun, Salas said she should have sat down and thought, “What do I want to get as a human” during the trip?
“The spirit of the pilgrimage is humility and acceptance,” she said. “And I was not good at that.”
Ultimately, Salas learned about the tendency to drift toward the easiest task instead of focusing on the difficult challenges in life, such as learning some Spanish before travelling.
Changing the world can be difficult, but Salas focused on the ultimate good that comes from being a teacher.
She said, “To be a teacher is to endure insecurity, alienation, loneliness, and fear.”
She added, “To become a master teacher, and to build a legacy of your life and career, is to have taken loneliness, insecurity, fear, and hard work, and compress them into something lasting, worthy of respect, and heroic.”
Salas said, “You can make the world a better place.”