Change Starts Inside The Classroom
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
As I reflect amid Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, his words put a lot into perspective for me as a JCC Chicago Early Childhood educator. At the J, we stand by the motto ‘Growing Good Kids.’ We create spaces for our children to thrive, explore and think critically about the world around them to inspire them to become thoughtful, strong teens that want to grow up and make a change in the world.
Every day inside my classroom, I actively celebrate themes of diversity, inclusion, empowerment, acceptance, and equity by reading books or having discussions with my students that contribute to their critical thinking skills. The importance of this teaching and the passion and dedication the J provides for its students is something Dr. King would be proud of.
Over the past few years, this approach to teaching has been at the forefront of the news with the Black Lives Matter movement. I was inspired by the J’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as they always have created a community where all are welcome even if not Jewish. Being embraced by the J community and finding a place where I can share my perspectives, further motivates me to want to work alongside this incredible community of changemakers.
As a child growing up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I was surrounded by Jewish culture even though I was not raised as a Jewish child. My mom worked as a private duty nurse for Jewish families and my dad was the custodian in a Synagogue. From an early age, I was emersed in Jewish traditions and practices through this connection. When my mom would go to work, she would often take me with her to sing or play piano for the residents in her facility, or my dad would bring me with to help him work in the Synagogue.
Through this exposure, I was always fascinated by Judaism, and it motivated me to study Hebrew and religious courses about Judaism in high school. This connection to Judaism in my younger years and my studies led me to want to work at JCC Chicago as an Early Childhood educator. Having worked at JCC Chicago Early Childhood at Beth Emet Synagogue now for many years, I have truly landed where I always wanted to be.
In my work at the J, I find it crucial to bring my combined cultural experience to the classroom to provide our students with a diverse perspective on the topics we cover in class. Recently, one of my amazing colleagues, another JCC educator, shared with me that Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr spoke at Beth Emet Synagogue on January 13, 1958. I find it inspiring and somewhat of a calling that Dr. King spoke at Beth Emet.
Dr. King was a changemaker, the voice of a generation, arguably the voice of a century. Dr. King’s accomplishments gave voice and action to the Montgomery bus boycott, March on Washington with many more profound accomplishments. Dr. King was about championing people whose voices would not have been accepted yet. As I quoted Dr. King above, we need to be the change we wish to see and keep fighting for the freedoms we have today.
The function of education is key to teaching one to think intensively and critically. It’s something I strive to do as an educator daily. Dr. King said, “I believe in movements; I believe in doing things in a large way in order to create a winning culture or mindset among the masses so that we move in one step towards an ultimate goal of success — and that’s education.”
The cross-section of my upbringing and Judaism has allowed me the tremendous opportunity to continue to be a leader in the J community and to continue to share the importance inclusive lessons that Dr. King stood for during his time as a civil rights leader and during his speech at our very own Beth Emet Synagogue 65 years ago. I am proud to be a part of the J community and continue teaching young minds to create good kids inside and outside of the classroom.
Timothy Avant is a lead teacher at JCC Chicago Early Childhood at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston. In 2022, he was selected as a recipient for JCC Chicago’s Spirit of Sheva Award for going above and beyond inside his classroom to serve his students and families. Education is his second career, as in his past, he studied musical theatre at The American Musical & Dramatic Academy in NYC while working professionally as an actor on Broadway and in international and national tours. He currently lives in Rogers Park with his longtime partner Jeffrey and their dog Lincoln. Tim is working on a degree in Child Development/Early Childhood currently at Truman College where he will be graduating this Spring then transferring to National Lewis University.