I had the pleasure of speaking at the Coweta County Teacher ceremony last night; this is what I shared.
Congratulations to all of this year’s teachers of the year. Being voted on by your peers is an incredible honor, and after reading all of your essays, I can honestly say that you represent our schools and county well. When thinking about what I could say to a room full of amazing teachers, I decided I would start by asking my students what they think makes a good teacher. One student quickly replied, “a good teacher is someone who collects data, color codes it, and enters it in spreadsheets so it is readily available to drive instruction” then someone else chimed in and said, “a good teacher knows when to divide us into flex or ability groups.” NO – this is not what they said; they said that great teachers are the teachers who are kind, take time to get to know their students, and are passionate about what they do. The more we talked about what makes a good teacher, the more I realized that students don’t find all teachers to be kind, relational, and passionate, and that made me sad.
I think part of the problem is teachers have been lied to along the way about practices that make for good teaching.
For example, how many of you have heard that you should not smile the first month of school? This is terrible advice. If anything, teachers should smile more the first month of school because we want our students to feel welcome in our space. I once read that the single most effective way to change classroom culture is for the teacher to smile more often. Not the ability to differentiate or set peers up for collaboration but smiling. Teachers should strive to be like Buddy the Elf who says, “ I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Sometimes I wonder how would my classroom and school be different if smiling was my favorite every day? How would yours be different?
Or what about the lie that You can balance life and work. As a teacher-leader, I am always saying: “Work hard from 8 – 4 then go home and live hard. Your family doesn’t deserve you grading papers or preparing lessons at night.” And while we may not take our work home, separating our emotional work life is much more difficult. I – as well as you – cannot count the number of nights of lost sleep because our thoughts turn to students who are living in volatile homes or are struggling with physical or emotional issues. After a student lost her mother in a tragic accident a few years ago, a few teachers and a counselor rallied around to make her mom’s wish come true: this girl would be the first family member to attend college. We worked with her on college applications, financial aid, scholarships, essays, recommendations, and housing as well as educating her family on the importance of a college degree. When she graduated from high school, we threw her a party. Friends took over my house during graduation cleaning, decorating, and stocking the fridge with food. The next day her large extended family and many friends came to celebrate her accomplishment of graduating from high school and being accepted to the University of Georgia. I had coffee with this young woman a couple of months ago to hear about her semester abroad in France. We also discussed those hard days of her senior year of high school. Carrying the burdens of our students is the price we pay – and the privilege we have – of being a good teacher, and we will never be able to leave that part of our job when we walk out of the school building or finish the year.
Another lie we’re told is that Content is the crux of what happens in the classroom. I love teaching novels, poetry, and writing. If everyone read books for fun and used commas correctly, the world would be a happier place, but most people just don’t care about British literature as much as I do. I once asked “Why are the Fireside poets important?” on an exam to which a student responded “to most people they’re not.” (That student was my son which mades for interesting dinner conversation). But far beyond the lessons learned from Wordsworth and Byron, we are teaching much more than content. I help students navigate the college admissions and scholarship process, learn time management skills, and most recently have spent a lot of time offering advice on topics from guys and girls to after-prom parties (which kind of goes along with guys and girls). Students look to us to see how we deal with inappropriate class comments. Students learn from us how to press on when we are tired. Students see how we respond to tragedy and loss. Students notice how I treat an annoying colleague. Students may remember conversations on good character and wise choices a lot longer than they remember what common meter and metonymy are, and that’s completely fine with me – as long as everyone is using the correct forms of there, they’re, and their.
Teachers are also lied to and warned not to get close to their students, yet my students say this is what really sets good teachers apart. My students know what football team I cheer for and my dog’s name. They know that I can’t grade without coffee in hand and what new restaurant I tried in Atlanta over the weekend. In turn, I know my students’ hobbies, their friends, and where they work, and am always talking to them about these things. Once when I told the class that they would be choosing a book for independent reading, a student proudly announced that he had never read a book in school because books are dumb. I happened to know this kid was obsessed with snakes because he drew them on every paper, and I set out to find him a book on snakes. He read the book through three times, and I would often have to tell him to put his snake book away when independent reading time was over so he could do his other work. Sadly, this kid did not pass my class and dropped out of school, but last year I received a message from him telling me he got his GED and thanking me for finding him a book about snakes – the only book he read in school. Attending sporting events, plays, dance recitals, academic bowl competitions, band festivals, writing reference letters, making hospital visits, and sadly even going to funeral homes is part of the job. We celebrate with our students, and we cry with our students. We cry for our students. The most interesting thing I have found in building relationships with students is that I set out to change the lives of my students but never dreamed of the ways students would change my life.
Another lie is You can’t pray in school. In the 70s in sweet home Alabama, my school day started with the pledge, Old and New Testament readings, and prayer. Today school is not a place where I proselytize students, hold Bible studies, or take formal prayer requests – nor should it be – but schools is definitely a place where I pray. I have prayed thousands of times in Room 128; most of these prayers are during freshmen English. The reality is I could not step into my class every day and do this job in my own strength. And whether you draw your strength from family, coworkers, friends, the Lord or a combination of all, teachers need a support system because the emotional toll of the job is more than one person can bear alone.
Finally, society’s biggest lie is Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Most people who say this would not last 5 minutes in a classroom. Keeping up with multiple preps, 800+ essays to grade each year, and just physical survival in a room of 32 students all day every day is just the start. This does not factor in having the emotional fortitude to give students instruction of where to hide in a classroom with windows on opposite walls during an active shooter drill while reassuring them of their safety. This does not factor in helping students in our classrooms deal with the death of a classmate. This does not factor in the constant encouragement and affirmation we give our students who are affected by the demands of social media for picture perfect perfection at all times. Teaching is not for the faint of heart. We are on the frontlines of a war fighting daily for the next generation. So I say: Those who can, teach; those who can’t, do something else.
Just as our students cannot be defined by a test score, we teachers cannot be reduced to a TKES score or measured solely on class data. Teachers are so much more than this. I believe – and my students concur – the qualities that make the best teachers cannot be quantified, and these are the most important qualities that define a teacher. So keep changing the world by dreaming, encouraging, and using your influence to invest in the next generation.