While browsing a LinkedIn group for educators, the National Education Association, I came upon a provocative discussion that began with the question I just quoted above.
Herm Allen posted the discussion question to challenge teachers to reflect on the benefits students may have gained in their classrooms this year.
As I read through the short article, Mr. Allen was putting emphasis on the experiential component of a teacher’s classroom.
He linked the reader to another of his coaching articles, Experience Counts, where he spoke of his days as a student.
The thing that resonated with him the most was how a teacher made him feel as a student. That struck a chord with me, because there were a few teachers I had who made me feel worthwhile and inspired great admiration within me.
These were the folks who, quite unknowingly, helped me decide to dedicate thirty-five years of my life to educating students.
I have a soft spot for the men and women who struggle daily to overcome obstacles to meet the demands of the curriculum and to be present to their students as persons.
In my book, A Personal Journey to the Heart of Teaching, I described some of the difficulties I experienced as a young teacher to master my craft. It’s very easy to get caught up in the lessons planned for the day and be inattentive to the goal of being present as a caring person.
Too often I would forget that many of the teenagers sitting in front of me were wrestling with tough personal issues. Pretty hard to get excited about passing legislation in Parliament when you’re hurting or full of anger.
Later in my career I would try to tune in to the prevailing mood of a class coming into the room – sometimes greeting them individually at the door.
Often I’d open the class with a prayer (encouraged in a Catholic school) and then ask how everybody was feeling. I never expected anyone to put their hand up and spill their emotional secrets; it was an attempt to let them know that I was interested in their well-being.
If something was bothering me, I’d use that opportunity to do a little personal sharing with them. Then I’d get on with that day’s lesson.
Lessons in the social sciences – like History or Civics – usually provided ample opportunities to draw lines of relevance to current events or to common experiences in our personal lives.
As a young teacher I would try to avoid the ‘pitfall’ of taking the lesson off-topic. Gotta cover the curriculum after all!
Later I viewed the opportunities for lesson detours as ‘teachable moments’ – especially if the detour caught the interest of the class.
Sometimes I’d get feedback from a student after such a lesson detour and I’d be told that he or she liked my class because they could get me off-topic.
I’d smile because I was being told two things: first, the student liked my class and, second, he or she felt comfortable enough to share that with me. I would chuckle to myself that the student thought that these lesson detours were staged by the students to avoid school work.
Who was I to disillusion them?
Why tell them that in my ‘old age’ I had become skilled in sticking life lessons into the regular curriculum?
For much of my career I hammered writing skills in my History courses. The nature of my subject area demanded that students write a lot of reports, short essays on tests, and research essays.
I absolutely abhorred reading piles of illiterate trash! For some strange reason, students would leave everything they learned about writing in English courses at the door of their English classroom.
So I took the bull by the horns and taught them in History class. Eventually those lessons were published in 2002 as Getting It Right in History Class , a book for students six years before I retired. Prior to that I was challenged regularly by students about my writing skill lessons.
Once I started using the book I authored in class, there were no more challenges – just raised eyebrows!
On top of the History content, writing and thinking skills, I deliberately set out to give my students a comfortable and safe environment in which to learn.
I discovered that treating my students respectfully in class was key to this goal. It pained me when I saw signs that some students weren’t accustomed to being treated with respect.
It meant they didn’t see themselves as worthy individuals. Knowing I couldn’t fix their personal lives, I tried to give that respect consistently so they might question their own poor self-image.
In addition to respecting my students, I sought to be honest with them – about my motives, my failures, and my own feelings. During my last five years, I came to the realization that when I expressed my feelings about something, that resonated with them.
There were times when I’d blow my cool after 17 interruptions from knocks at the door, calls on the school phone, and call-ins from the p.a. system. Then I’d apologize and talk about my frustration.
I allowed them to see the real me – warts and all.
Finally, I tried to let them know that I did care about them.
Did I always succeed?
Probably not! But because I showed them respect, and was honest about my mistakes – and was willing to apologize to students I had slighted in a fit of anger – I found them willing to forgive me.
I wanted, above all, to be a real person to them – not their buddy – just an adult who was happy to see them each day.
I hope it was enough.