Class of Spring 2023: CEHHS graduate Ezra Houghtby

April 26, 2023

The aspiring high school history and English teacher talks about why empathy is one of the most powerful classroom tools.

A colorful maize and blue graphic featuring a headshot of student Ezra Houghtby
Graphic by Violet Dashi

The challenges facing teachers these days are enough to send many students looking for other majors. But CEHHS senior Ezra Houghtby says he barely had a thought about being anything else. He thinks a big part of why he started chasing a career in education from his very first semester at UM-Dearborn is the respect he’s always had for the teachers in his own life. His mom was a teacher for 10 years. Several close family members have chosen the profession too. And he always valued how his high school teachers would stay well past the final bell to talk to him when he needed a little extra guidance. “I mean, some teachers, it was 3 o’clock and they were out the door,” Houghtby says. “But I always noticed the ones who stayed to talk when a student needed something. I saw them doing this for dozens of students year after year, and I always thought if I could do that just for one person, I’d be doing something that mattered.”

In his years at UM-Dearborn, Houghtby has found plenty of inspiration too. He marveled at Associate Professor of English Literature Erik Bond’s ability to keep students engaged during COVID, especially Bond’s “Mr. Skeptic” video series, in which he played both himself and a character who was constantly questioning key issues he wanted the students to think about. And in Lecturer Anne Thomson’s class, he learned one of his favorite techniques for getting students to participate. In a “fishbowl” discussion, five or six students form an inner circle, while the rest of the class surrounds them in a larger outer circle. The students in the inner circle have a discussion on a given topic, while those in the outer circle have to remain quiet and observe. Students then rotate in and out of the fishbowl, and afterward, everyone debriefs about what they heard. Houghtby loves it because it’s a way for students to practice articulating their viewpoints and listening to others — valuable skills that’ll serve them in both their educational careers and their lives more generally.

During his student teaching this past semester, Houghtby got a chance to see what kind of teacher he’d be, and he found himself drawn to assignments that asked students to learn through empathy. For example, in his 9th grade literature class, he led a unit on Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel whose plot takes readers through painful injustices and characters challenged by moral dilemmas. To help the students relate to the themes in the book, Houghtby asked his students to pick a character and create a modern social media profile for the person. The character’s posts had to be rooted in actual dialogue or descriptions from the novel, but they also had to be translated into today’s language and perhaps even comment on modern issues. What would Atticus Finch have had to say about Black Lives Matter, for example? How do the racial injustices in the book resemble what’s going on today? Similarly, in his 9th grade history class, he gave students an assignment to take on the role of an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. By asking his students to actively relate to others, Houghtby said he could ensure the students would not only engage with the material, but wrestle with its deeper meaning.

Houghtby did have one “cold feet” moment about his career choice. It was last summer, heading into his senior year, when he says the constant stream of news about school violence briefly made him question whether he should, even late in his college career, consider a different path. But in an unfortunate sign of the times, he realized school violence is something he’s actually prepared for as an educator. “I have to put my trust in the fact that if that happens, I know what to do, my school knows what to do, at least as best we know how to,” he says. “In the end, I feel like making a positive impact on people’s lives is what I want to do, and this is the way I can do it best. I guess I just decided I couldn’t abandon my chance to contribute to a community where all people can get the help that they need and be accepted for who they are.”

Houghtby’s hoping to get that opportunity very soon. He’s applying for jobs now and would love to land a job in Dearborn, where some of his early practicum experiences left the strongest impression. Ultimately, he hopes to become a school principal, so he can help the dedicated teachers and staff who, like him, see education not just as a career, but a calling. 


Story by Lou Blouin