“I Am Soka Education!”
How Ivan Croft built a culture of trust, respect and compassion in the classroom.
by Ivan Croft
Succeeding in school was not easy for me. I was an artistic and free-spirited youth, while the schools in Harlem were strict and regimented, believing that it was the only way that African American students could succeed. Although my school sat in the heart of the African American cultural and artistic renaissance, there was little respect for the sanctity and artistry of our lives.
Even more potent than overt forms of racism, these subtle racial dynamics weighed heavily on many of us. Several friends I grew up with were not able to navigate these treacherous currents and fell victim to self-destructive behaviors.
Through my parents’ insistence that I continue my education, I went on to graduate high school and attend college. It was during this time in my early 20s that a neighbor invited me to an SGI meeting. I saw six African American men chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and found myself empowered, not just by the chanting but by their enormous life energy. I decided then and there that I would not become a statistic.
After working hard to acquire a master’s in educational leadership, I served as program director with inner-city youth in low-income, underserved communities in the Northeast Bronx.
The very same children who were failing in school thrived at the after-school and summer programs that we ran. Why? I refused to accept the low expectations other people might have had for my children. We listened and learned from the community. We refused to patronize or have false sympathy for them. We understood their pain, histories and harsh realities, but also respected their abilities to overcome and even thrive in these conditions. Based on SGI President Ikeda’s guidance and my Buddhist practice, I was able to see their unlimited potential and unique capabilities.
I am especially proud of the workshops I successfully led for young fathers who fought desperately to be good role models for their kids despite having so many obstacles in their paths!
As a stable force in my two daughters’ lives, I did my best to balance fatherhood, and my career and Buddhist practice. For me, the key was a regimen of early morning gongyo, a determination to have no complaints and no self-pity, and to win in both my SGI responsibilities and daily life.
We realized that Soka schools are already here—they exist in each teacher’s own human revolution. I resolved: “I am Soka Education!”
Then three years ago, my faith was put to the test at work. As noble as not-for-profit work is, it can be unstable, and I found myself out of a job due to severe budget cuts. Suddenly, my livelihood was gone, and I couldn’t even afford to maintain my car. Not being able to provide for my family made me feel humiliated and powerless. It brought back those memories of being a teenager in Harlem, not granted the access to a better life unless I fought for it. But back then I had to overcome those obstacles by myself. Now I had my SGI community to rely on.
At this crucial moment, I sought guidance from my seniors in faith. As a result, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo courageously and threw myself into SGI activities. As a future division men’s leader, I determined that the elementary school division members in my care would never feel my inner turmoil. Rather, together with my New York Zone future division team, we created an environment filled with Sensei’s heart to treasure each child. Even guests wanted their children to be a part of the ESD, and several families joined the SGI as they experienced this oasis of joy and friendship.
My job struggles continued for almost a year, as I challenged myself daily to remain unswayed in my faith. Then a breakthrough beyond my imagination happened. New York City initiated the universal pre-K program, and I was suddenly presented with the opportunity to be the lead teacher at a brand-new pre-K school.
This was not an easy decision for me. A 60-year-old man working as a pre-K teacher? My income would be minuscule compared to my previous work, meaning still no car and no apparent status.
I then found the deepest encouragement in The New Human Revolution. President Ikeda writes: “Why is teaching such a noble profession? Because the world’s future depends on it” (August 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 45). It was as if Sensei were speaking directly to me. I knew at that moment that I had to return to the classroom.
The first year was excruciating as we faced the challenges of building a school culture, gaining the confidence of parents and recruiting a united, dedicated staff. At times, the anxiety was so great that I couldn’t sleep. Serious doubts arose: Should I return to teaching or look for another job? To overcome the uncertainty, I attended the 2015 SGI-USA Culture Department Conference at the Florida Nature and Culture Center. At the conference, teachers asked whether Soka schools would be coming to America.
Through discussions, we realized that Soka schools are already here—they exist in each teacher’s own human revolution. I resolved: “I am Soka Education!”
With that spirit, I went back to work determined more than ever to win. My assistant teacher at the school, inspired by the values of Soka, received the Gohonzon in August of last year. Altogether, we and the students have created a humanistic bond and a Soka environment of trust, respect, joy and compassion. I have been able to connect with the Buddha nature in each of my amazing students.
Currently I am teaching a unit on butterflies and metamorphosis, in preparation for my students beginning their new lives next year as kindergarten students. After the lesson, they asked me, “Mr. Croft, can you be our teacher forever?” A smile and a tear came across my face, and I paused for a moment. “Yes,” I responded, vowing to always be their teacher in my heart.
Every aspect of my life is now in focus. Still without a car, I joyfully take the long bus ride every day to work, engaging in dialogue and making many friends.
My mission is clear. I have never felt so completely confident and fulfilled in my life. I believe this is because I have opened myself to Sensei’s guidance, making the oneness of mentor and disciple my foundation and my quest.
As I enter my 40th year of Buddhist practice, I am determined to redouble my efforts to raise successors, whether my own children or those I educate. Every child deserves to be valued, and it is my determination to honor the sanctity and artistry of every one of those beautiful spirits that crosses my path, today and always.