“My rookie years taught me a great number of things. I had made enough blunders to know that excellence in the classroom doesn’t happen just because you desire it. Despite my good intentions, hard work, and innate talents, I would never become the teacher I wanted to be without the generous mentoring I received from many staff members at St. Benedict.… But the most significant lesson learned in these years came from my students. In their bewilderment and pain, they turned to me. They were not looking for pearls of wisdom that would fix their world; they turned to me for human comfort because they trusted me to be there for them, to offer understanding and support. I didn’t fully realize it then, but that was a glimpse into the heart of teaching.”
Excerpt From: John Fioravanti. “A Personal Journey to the Heart of Teaching.”
My thirty-five year journey in the classroom provided me with more opportunities for growth than I can count. For these lessons I will be eternally grateful to my colleague mentors and my students at St. Benedict and St. David. Very often life lessons are painful in some way. That certainly was my experience, especially with respect to the lessons received from my students at both schools. As I look back on it now, I find it so ironic that the very people I was paid to teach had a lot to teach me.
Fairly early on in my years in the history classroom I took up a mission to teach students how to improve their writing skills. That crusade started with rough directions written on a chalkboard and ended with a published book on the topic. The directions evolved over the years because I studied the results of every class assignment very carefully. As I marked the papers, I made notes about aspects of the assignment that gave many students difficulties. I used these notes to revamp the assignment directions sheet I distributed next time. Over time, these sheets of instructions became pages, then booklets, and finally the book I mentioned earlier.
Learning from my students on the topic of writing skills was deliberate on my part. It was a slow process because I had to analyze their errors or shortcomings, then figure out remedies – and hope I was on the right track. I had no training to fall back on, so it was largely trial and error. The process sped up quite a bit when our Catholic high schools switched to a semester schedule. I never supported that administrative decision because it did not benefit the majority of students. Courses were completed too quickly for many kids to cope well. But semestering the schools sure saved a lot of taxpayer dollars! Semesters did help speed up the evolution of my writing skills program because it often afforded me the opportunity to teach the same course in each semester. So instead of waiting until the next school year to implement any improvements I made to the skills program, I could implement in the next semester.
I am grateful that I was open to new learning, other wise I would never have grown as a man or as an educator. As I said earlier, some lessons are painful because they come as a direct result of a mistake, a misstep of some kind, or a serious blunder in judgment. There were times when errors on my part inflicted emotional harm to my students. Those times were very difficult for me to deal with because they were in violation of one of the main reasons I entered the teaching profession. I’m reminded of the central idea of the Hippocratic oath taken by medical doctors: do no harm!
Throughout my career, I was always amazed by the seemingly endless capacity of my students for forgiveness. But before I benefited from their generosity of spirit, I had to learn one of the most painful lessons of all. Students do not suffer fools or arrogant people at all. One of the most glaring examples of arrogance in the classroom is a teacher’s attitude that he or she doesn’t make mistakes. Now, I’m not talking about spelling errors on the blackboard – or whiteboard – or on the overhead monster. No, I’m talking about mistakes made because of inability to control one’s temper, or acting upon bad judgment. No one is perfect and even the very best teachers have bad days. But the golden lesson for me was to learn to apologize publicly to my students if I offended some or all of them. That’s really hard to do. It took me a week to work up the courage to do it the first time. Thereafter it became easier because I always experienced their forgiveness. A painful moment became a beautiful moment of bonding between the adult in the room and the students.
My learning in the classroom was both personal and academic – or professional, if you will. It was never easy. But I always thought that the benefits of that learning far outstripped any costs I paid. I emerged from that journey a far better person for it. How do I thank my students for that?