Education is a fundamental tool to success. For being a country that claims to excel in every category, the United States has not hit the marker when it comes to education. According to the PEW Research Center, the United States placed 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. The results were similar for reading. In fact, 65 percent of fourth graders read below their grade level according to the Literacy Network. According to ProLiteracy, more than 36 million adults in the United States are not above the third-grade level in terms of reading, writing, and doing basic math.

As a nation, we are failing at giving children a high-quality education. The lack of literacy alone contributes greatly to the inequalities we face in our country. Without reading, there is no access to information about their rights, choices, voting, employment, and more.

But if education is going to be the key to improving the world, how do we begin?

IVY Magazine sat down with member William Staton, who has worked in the educational field as a teacher, teacher recruiter, and school administrator including a dean, to learn more about what it means to be an educator in America today, as well as what he believes education can do to impact the world.

What is your background and what made you initially interested in pursuing education as a career?

I never planned to be an educator, but during my senior year of college I worked for Teach For America as an on-campus student recruiter. This experience exposed me to the staggering degree of inequity in our education system, and inspired me to become a teacher. I joined Teach For America, and after teaching for two years remained in education.

America is currently in an educational crisis. What does this mean?

American schools are stagnant. If they educate students at all, they educate them for a bygone world. Everything from the format of the academic year to the relevance of the curricula needs to be reimagined. In particular, American schools shifted from a period of too little accountability in which chronically failing schools were allowed to persist to a period of too much accountability in which educators are stifled and given inadequate time and resources to be successful.

How do you think that education can improve the world?

Ultimately, I believe education is the only way to foster lasting and sustainable change. So many problems in our society and around the world – if they are not directly caused by a lack of education, which is sometimes the case – can be solved by providing universal, high-quality education. This is a big task. High-quality education is elusive, accessible to only a few, but if we unleashed the potential of each individual and empowered everyone to take ownership of their own and our collective well-being then we would see massive social, economic, environmental, and other types of progress.

Does being an educator stop at being a teacher? Is there anyone else who can be an educator?

Absolutely not. Everyone can – and should – be an educator, especially in an open, democratic society like ours in which thoughtful and respectful public discourse are imperative. We educate others by modeling mindsets and behaviors. It’s also important to remember that children aren’t the only ones who need educating, and I don’t intend that as an insult. The term “life-long learner” is an immeasurable cliché, but it is also the ideal outcome of a good education. The smartest people learn throughout the course of their lives, and we should be thoughtful about how our actions educate the adults around us as well – again, particularly in the context of an open society like America.

You said you don’t have to be a superhero to change the world. Can you expand on this?

I might be the only person who dislikes superheroes. They’re fun, but I think they lull us into a sense of complacency by making problems seem so massive, so insurmountable that we must either yield to them or rely on a superhuman to save us. Sure, superheroes fight bad guys, not climate change, but apply the same mindset to the respective problems; are we really waiting for someone else to come along and turn off all the lights we left on, shorten our showers, or otherwise reduce our carbon footprint? There is even a documentary, “Waiting For Superman,” that addresses the inadequacy of American schools and frames the problem as being so massive that those in charge were waiting for the silver bullet solution instead of doing the hard, necessary work to bring change. That paradigm is completely backwards. We don’t need a small handful of people doing Herculean things to make the world better, we need a planet full of people doing the little things each day. It’s a different mindset, instead of 7 heroes each helping a billion people, 7 billion people helping each other.

What are things everyone can do each day to make the world a better place?

I try to frame it as follows: If you’re thinking about how your small actions might impact someone else, just assume that someone is having the worst day you’ve ever had and recall what it meant to you when someone held a door for you, said something friendly, or was polite and helpful. I think part of the problem with the concept of “touching one life,” is that people imagine a profound gesture. But all of us are the product of countless small gesture, little touchpoints from hundreds, maybe thousands of people, those little touch points can and should be positive too. It’s not just about grand gestures. Hold the door for the person exiting behind you.

I was wondering if you could recall or if you mind sharing one memory of an event or something that happened that showed you how you have made an impact?

Fortunately, I can recall many! I think part of the reason I frame things on such a micro “touch one life” level is because it really is difficult to determine who should get credit if a child gets a good education (and also how much it should matter who gets credit). If a student turns into a well-educated, “successful” life-long learner, who gets credit? The parents, elementary school, middle school? There is no one answer; all of those people and institutions had an impact. I try to think of my interactions with students in the same way. I have been an educator for 10 years, and some of my older students have graduated from college at this point. Rather than point at them and say “I was a good teacher,” I prefer to think of it as “I pushed that kid a bit further down a good road; I played my part when it was my time.” Having said that, there are two students who were sophomores my fourth year as an educator. I worked with both of them closely, and both are now college graduates pursuing their goals and contributing to society. I still keep in touch with both of them, and I’m very proud of them.

What do you love about your work?

The students. They are the best and the most stressful part of being an educator. I’m consistently and continually amazed by their insights even at the youngest ages. And it is legitimately fun, exciting, and rewarding to answer their questions and see their minds grow.