Among other things this week, I got an email from a second year history teacher. He saw that I won a few awards and wanted to know if I could offer any wisdom. He wanted the secret to how I did it. Feeling the loss of my students rather acutely at the moment, I began crafting a response which, in slightly edited form, you see below. I consider it my love letter to education. Play the tune and enjoy.
This is going to be lengthy. Best to settle in.
The secret to great teaching? I hate to tell you this but there is no secret; it is really hard work. There will never be a profession that leaves you more mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted at the end of the week. If you do not feel like you have hit a brick wall by the time Friday night rolls around, you are doing something wrong. In my 17 years of teaching I have seen people and initiatives come and go, but I have also learned a few things to be absolute truths. I hope you find them helpful.
First, you must love your students. I don’t mean like, I mean love them like they are your own kids. Love, because sometimes they will work your last nerve and push you away with every fiber of their being. In many cases, this is because the adults in their lives have given up on them time and time again and the students know it is easier to keep you at a distance than actually care about you. You may be the adult that a student spends the most time with in the course of a day. Kids can smell insincerity at 50 paces, and if they think you are just showing up to collect a paycheck or until something better comes along, they will treat you accordingly.
Second, you must have a tremendous amount of energy. Teaching is not something that ends at 3:00 Monday through Friday. Education is something that happens 24/7, 365 days a year. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and you will have days with soaring highs and soul searching lows. You will hit some brick walls with students, colleagues, administration and bureaucracy. You can’t let it stop you, you have to figure out how to get around the obstacle and keep moving. It doesn’t just involve you either, your whole family is drawn in as you collect objects for lessons, drag them to museums and historic sites for a dry run, and force them to buy all the fundraisers that come along. I cannot tell you how many times my mom has helped me grade papers, put up bulletin boards, or work in the snack shack at football games. She has even brought my lunch to school when I forgot it and was broke, and I am a grown woman.
Third, when it comes to students, you can’t teach them until you reach them. That means that you need to know how they learn best, what their cultural influences are, their biases, their socioeconomic status and how it affects them. By the way, you need to know all this about yourself too. What are your biases, how do you learn best, and where do your influences come from? If you are an auditory learner and your students are visual, you may explain something to them and they don’t get it. It doesn’t mean they are dumb, it means you are not communicating effectively. Every child acts the way they do for a reason and your job is not to judge them, but to dig and find out why.
In this same area, in order to get to know your students, you have to let them get to know you, as a person. I don’t mean in a creepy way, but they need to see that you are human. You can’t expect them to share if you are unwilling to do it yourself. I show them my baby and high school pictures, pictures of my family and my cat, and explain where I have learning difficulties. Find out what their hopes and dreams are and where their gifts and talents lie. You may recognize their potential for greatness long before anyone else does. Everyone is good at something. Help them cultivate their gifts and express the importance of paying it forward to help others. Show them humanity and they will show it to others.
Fourth, you never stop learning until the day you die. You must constantly seek new knowledge and experiences, and find ways to bring them into the classroom that are meaningful. Life doesn’t happen in textbooks, get them out and experiencing the world. Take them to museums, historic sites, the theater and anywhere else where their imagination can be stimulated. Learning is an adventure of discovery that you ask your students to join you on. Learning is complex and everything is inter-related. Your job is to help them find the connections, and by extension, realize that they have choices available to them they may not have realized. In order to do this, students have to feel comfortable trying new things, even if it means they are going to fail, but you need to protect them from ridicule so they can try. This means that you have to be willing to try new things too, and also admit to them and yourself that there are some things you don’t know.
Are you tired and overwhelmed yet? Your job is not nearly over. You need to find yourself a mentor. A Yoda, or Zen Master if you will. I don’t care how many years you have been teaching, you always need a mentor. Wander the halls and find the person that you think is a great teacher, even if they are not in your subject area. Bribe them into talking to you with coffee, chocolate, or offer to take them out for something stronger if it is a Friday. If you don’t know who the great ones are, ask the kids. After you find them, listen, learn, and ask questions. After that you have to be willing to share with your colleagues even if they don’t want to know. Some people are very set in their ways, CAVE dwellers (Consistently Against Virtually Everything), but don’t give up. Once again, listen learn and value everyone’s ideas even if you don’t agree with them. There are reasons that they act the way they do, too.
I would suggest getting involved as an advisor or coach for an extra-curricular activity. Nothing will bond you to the kids like working with them outside of class.
If you don’t know who the people are that run the school, it is the secretaries and custodial staff. Be exceedingly kind to these people, they can save your life sometimes.
Notice that none of this is about metrics, or the science, of teaching. It is the art of teaching, and without it, all the science in the form of pedagogy and assessment will fail. Your job is to cultivate a love of learning and a curiosity in your students and to help them see their role in the bigger picture of life. Great teachers have passion, dedication, and are expert communicators who can build relationships.
At the end of the day, you don’t teach because you may win an award. There are tons of great teachers who never win an award; I was simply lucky. I am not the best teacher in NJ,. Heck, I am not even the best teacher I can be because I still have lots to learn and I am evolving every day, but I am proud to represent the 110,000+ teachers in NJ and the great work that they do. Sadly, it is often the case that your administration may be indifferent to what you do. I have been in 3 schools in my 17 years of education and not once have any of them told me that I was a valuable asset to the school or attempted to convince me to stay. This phenomenon, discussed in the TNTP study The Irreplaceables, needs to change and we need to help shift that climate by celebrating what we do. Your colleagues may also try to take you down a peg because they are jealous or have their own insecurities. The people who will notice what you do are your students. You may not know it now, but even if they are the biggest pain in the class, you will have an effect on them. Some will come back years later to say thank you, some will come into your class hating history but love it by the time they leave, and some students will keep you as a part of their lives long after they graduate and have lives of their own. You will be invited to their weddings and meet their children. Some will even want to become a teacher because of you. The kids are the ones that really mater.
I wish you the best for a happy and healthy school year. Remember, you don’t do what you do for a paycheck, you have to teach from the soul. It is more than what you do, it should be who you are. You should do this job because maybe, just maybe, you make the difference in a student’s life that can put them on the path to success. Don’t fill the bucket, light the fire.