October 04, 2004

Why Teach?

I went to my 20th high school reunion this weekend. One of my friends, Charles, told me that he could see that I really cared about the success of my students. Another was encouraged by my efforts and said, "that's what the world needs, more committed teachers!" The thing is, other than sharing the fact that this was my 10th year in the classroom, I didn't tell them anything about what or how I do what I do. Their comments, while enjoyed by my ego, confounded me. How did they know I cared about my students? How did they know that I was committed to my service?

Teachers are definitely a breed apart. True we are made, and not created, but it seems like you can always tell a good teacher when you see one, even if you don't see them teach. I ran into an old student of mine at the car wash earlier that day. She shared with me her desire to teach. I encouraged her because I knew already that she would make a great teacher. Her personality is inviting, she seems naturally kind and patient, she doesn't judge but instead shares a warm smile. She will be a great teacher regardless of subject matter or grade level. I could see that in her, just like my friends could see it in me.

But I haven't always been able to see it in myself. The "it" being the qualities and energy of a good teacher. I reflect on my teaching, but usually my reflections display all the things I need to fix, or don't do very well. Still, I endure, and continue to work at improving myself because I just love what I do, and couldn't dream now of doing anything else. However, teaching was not my first choice. I did not see myself as a teacher when I was younger. Other people did: my father and my wife. They suggested I try teaching; and it was a good fit. But what makes teaching a good fit for me? And why do I fit teaching? Have you ever asked yourself why you teach?

For some, the answer is obvious. They teach because that is what they have always wanted to do. For others, they teach because teaching provides a steady paycheck and great benefits. Still others are called by some higher authority to spend their days wiping noses and answering the same question three or more times an hour. If we are to be successful teachers, teachers who change lives, we have to look deeper than the desire, the paycheck, or the calling. I think we have to look deep within ourselves and recognize that not only does the world need great teachers, role models willing to give selflessly, but that we too have a need to play the role or inspirer, sage, and friend.

Not everyone needs to know that their efforts are meaningful. But I do. I gave up pursuing a career in television because I didn't want to spend my time away from my family selling soap. It was fun, but empty. Teaching allows me to make the world around me a better place. I regularly see alumni who tell me that the time spent in my class made a difference to lives and changed them in some way. Not all my students, but many share the same experience. Is there something I do directly that changes them? I'm not sure. Like Charles said, it is very important to me that my students are successful. I don't know yet exactly how that plays out in my classroom, but it is at the top of my list of priorities. As my other friend pointed out, I am completely committed to my students success, but what does that look like?

The answer is that it is different for different teachers. But one thing is certain, if you are not invested in your students success, and if you are not committed to them, then I have to ask you, why teach?

September 28, 2004

Why are we learning this?

Relevance is important to kids today. I tell my students to always ask their teachers, "why are we learning this?" Teachers need to be relevant in the classroom, not only with subject matter, but also with who they are as people. This can be a tricky matter. Teachers are the authority in the classroom, and therefore must be prepared to take on that responsibility. We are the adults in charge. But what does being adult mean? Does it mean that we present a facade of who we think we are suppose to be? Do we become the authoritarian, the nice guy, or the crazy one? Students can see through those acts like looking through a window. We need to connect with our students not just as teacher and pupil, but as people.

But how? How do we adults connect with today's youth. The best teachers I had growing up were those who I felt I shared something in common. Often it was love of the subject matter, like drama, or math. But sometimes it was something more. I connected with those teachers who were willing to see me for who I was, a struggling, confused, kid, and then present themselves honestly. Nobody liked the teacher who screamed at the students, and then spoke of acting appropriately in class. Or the one who never smiled, but then expected the students to appreciate them. Kids always loved the teachers who would share stories of their lives and allow themselves to be fully-human.

When I taught middle school I was surprised at how kids reacted to the news that I had a wife, children and a home. They seemed shocked that I left the classroom at the end of the day. I swear that one of them was constantly looking for the cot I slept in at night. Sure, kids see us as authority figures, mentors, and guides, but they need to see our human side as well.

We are teaching more than how to write a great essay, or when the Battle of the Bulge took place. We are teaching our kids to be people. And we seem to be doing more and more of that every year, as students seem to spend less and less time with family. Students are watching us all the time to learn their values, perspective, and beliefs. How we share our own values, perspectives, and beliefs is critically important. We need to be as transparent as the glass in the window, and let the students take whatever lessons they can from their experience with us.

So how do we connect with students? First, as Dr. Phil would say, we need to "get real." We need to be confident enough as individual to authentically be ourselves in the classroom. Kids know right away if you are real or not. First impressions are important, and trying to convince them of who you are after you've set the tone is a difficult challenge.

One of my favorite teachers was a man named Bob. Bob taught me high school algebra and geometry. Bob was a WWII vet, and loved to share his stories of being a rear gunner. And we loved to hear his stories. Anytime I didn't want to work, I would ask Bob about his life. He was in his later years when I was in his class, and he loved to share his experiences. Sure, it worked to get him off the topic of math, but at the same time, I learned more about courage from his time in the service than I did calculating Pythagorus. Yes I learned math, but more importantly, I learned the importance of serving my country, and the pride that came with surviving battle. Bob connected with his students.

Share your stories with your students. Be who you are. Don't get caught up in the attitude that a teacher only acts a certain way. How you dress, what music you listen to, or whether or not you know the names of the Gravity Games athletes is not important. Being human and trusting who you are in front of your students is very important. Our job is to not only impart knowledge, but also to share our wisdom as well. Be relevant and you will connect with every one of your students.

September 27, 2004

Teacher:Student Ratio?

Every year on the first day of school I tell my students the following:

"There is a 1:35 ratio in this classroom. There is one teacher, and 35 students. That means that everyday, for the hour or so we are together, you will get 1/35th of my attention. That's about the size of my pinky finger (I pretend to give them my pinky finger). At the end of the day, when you go home, all you will have to show for the amount of attention you received from your teachers today will be six pinky fingers. Not very much by my count. However, for every hour or so we are together everyday, I get 35 students. Multiply that times six classes, and it's about 210 people. So I get 210 people to teach me everyday. When we finish, you will teach me far more than I will teach you. I win the 1:35 ratio."

I don't think most teachers ever think of their relationships with their students like this. But it's true. Teachers win the 1:35 ratio, or 1:20 ratio if you are so unlucky. Everyday we are blessed with the insights, the passions, the lessons of our students. Some teachers get stuck in the mindset that it is all about the teacher in the classroom. But it's all about the students, and that is very good for the teacher. Although we may influence our students in some ways, it is their influence of us that will grow us as people, and challenge us to improve.

Take Philip for example. Philip was the stinky kid. He had bad skin, bad clothes, and an odd hair cut. Most students treated him poorly because they couldn't understand why he looked, or smelled the way he did. But I could tell that there was more to Philip than was obvious. Philip understood the importance of high school, and his presence in class. He knew that he must graduate high school if he was going to be successful in life, and he was fully committed to doing so. However, Philip's circumstances were committed to his failure. Philip missed many days in class. When I asked him what was up, he explained that he couldn't always catch the city bus, and that there was no one at home to give him a ride to school. I pressed about his parents, and Philip explained that his mom was gone and his dad was a junky. The reason Philip looked and dressed the way he did, was that he alone was not only responsible for taking care of his own clothing, food, and transportation, he was also responsible for his dad. When the police came knocking on the door, Philip would have to distract them while his dad slipped out the back. Philip and I would talk between classes and during lunch. I did what I could to encourage him and boost his confidence. I didn't need to elaborate much, since Philip was already very bright and very committed to success. Unfortunately, because of Philip's sporadic attendance, he was transfered to a continuation school. For the short time we had together I taught him a little about computers, and gave him an "atta boy" when he needed it.

That's what teachers do. We give "atta boys" when we are inspired to do so, and go on with our days. We give selflessly day after day, week after week. And it's exhausting. I can only imagine that medical and rescue service people give more of themselves than teachers. It's easy to get discouraged when we don't know if what we do makes any difference in the lives of our students. We cannot measure just how much we influence the lives of our kids. But we can measure how much they influence us.

I was right in the middle of one of the worst weeks I had experienced all year. I hate the end of school anyway. I start missing the students before they even begin to leave. I am cursed because I laughed at my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Heskith (misspelled), the first male teacher I ever had, and the first one I ever saw cry when we left on the last day of school. On top of that I was in the process of packing all my stuff in boxes to move out so that my classroom could be remodeled over the summer. I was in a sour mood when Philip came walking back through my door. I hadn't see Philip for a couple of years. Philip explained that he was scheduled to graduate in a week. He had fulfilled all of the graduation requirements, got a job at a pizza place, and had moved into a place with some friends. I congratulated Philip and told him I knew he could do it, or some odd thing. But Philip wanted me to know that he felt I was partially responsible for his success. Well, my sour attitude evaporated and I felt inspired all over again.

Students should inspire us to keep teaching, and we should welcome the inspiration. If we don't, we run the risk of becoming stale. It happens to the best teachers. They stop connecting with students (a subject for another post) and begin to disappear in their own classrooms. It is important for us to always remember to reflect on what our students bring to our lives. Too many teachers get caught up in the "sit down, shut up, and take notes," attitude toward their students. Sure, it may be easier to manage, but once you shut yourself off from the kids, they will shut down. If that happens, you're classroom will become a barren and ugly landscape of disinterest and apathy. But if you continue to appreciate what your kids do for you, how they enrich your life, then you will never lack inspiration to teach, or a desire to give of yourself. Whatever you give, will be returned to you times 35 each hour.