I don’t think anyone gets started in education without the hope of making a difference, but some sure seem to make more of an impact than others.
Why is that?
Even among the well meaning, I see a range of successes.
Like most people, when I think back on the teachers I had, I had good teachers and bad teachers, memorable teachers and forgettable teachers. I spent some time today thinking through what pushed teachers to the positive two extremes for me. Happily, the good, memorable teacher was not terribly elusive to me; still, I think it’s worth the effort to dig into what sets apart those teachers who end up being more memorable than the rest.
This motivated me to do all I could to be the teacher who made a difference.
If I could go back to first year teacher me, I would have a lot to say. These five suggestions would be part of that conversation.
Invest Time In Relationships
This should go without saying, but there are more possibilities for this to go awry than I’d like to leave it up to chance. I think it’s important for students to see teachers as professionals; I really do. Many teachers (especially those early in their experience as educators) err on the side of being the “friend” teacher. Don’t get me wrong–the relationships are key, but I think they are key in a different way. One part of the real power of the relationships comes from having a clear role as the teacher in the class and being someone who will care for the prerequisite needs of students in addition to those explicitly academic needs. These teachers make students feel welcome in class and create an environment that helps students know there will are consequences for failure (but one of those consequences is that we’re going to pick ourselves up and keep learning).
Listen Without Judgment
As a high school English teacher, there were a lot of opportunities for me to explain ideas in an official capacity. As the teacher, the onus was on me to answer questions like “What did the author mean when he did X?” or “What’s the author saying about the state of society today when her characters respond like that?” Rather than answering those questions myself, I tried to model the struggle the authors were often encouraging readers to grapple with and pushed the responsibility for answering the question out to the students. Then, my role shifted from question answerer to conversation facilitator (which I greatly preferred). Like it or not, students found themselves free to sort through their beliefs lived out in the context of the narratives we encountered. I usually saw some who seemed so sure of themselves quickly left stuck really considering the implications of their positions, but more I often was floored by the quiet student who, given the chance, took the opportunity to share his or her brilliance with the class. This doesn’t happen if we’re giving them the answers.
I’m a firm believer that students benefit from high expectations. But more than sending out individuals capable of meeting and exceeding the highest expectations from life’s next challenges, I hope that we send out young people who are ready to make the human decision when the time calls for it. Learning doesn’t happen in a linear fashion for most students. I certainly can’t draw a linear timeline to tie many of my own learning experiences together. And yet too often, I get the feeling that teachers feel they don’t have permission to yield to their better judgment and extend grace to a student. I don’t mean to say that we have armies of teachers out there waiting to enforce rules simply because they are the rules, but I don’t think we can do any harm by taking the pressure off (because as school progresses, we all know it is most certainly on) some of our students with the opportunity to experience a bit of grace under extenuating circumstances. It makes a huge impact.
Notice When It’s An Off Day
Students rarely enter the room and announce that their day isn’t going well. At least not in as many words, right? It comes in all sorts of other forms. Listing those off isn’t necessary here, but it is important to consider how we respond when we notice it. One day I came back from being out, and a student in my first period told me this: “Mr. Hogan, I was having a bad day, but you weren’t here. You always seem to notice it and make those days better.” As a fairly introverted teacher, I was always just looking for things I could make conversation about. I had no idea the impact I was having. I’ll never forget that.
Admit Your Failures
Somehow part of being a leader has morphed into being (or at least presenting yourself as) flawless. I can’t stand that. Reality is that we all are making plenty of mistakes. Not careless ones–just regular, everyday, accidental mistakes. If we don’t show our students a model for taking ownership of our mistakes, what are we saying to them about how they should handle this in the future. It’s important in all contexts, but it’s a special priority of mine to make sure young men see grown men take ownership of their actions–no matter how big or small they may be–and respond appropriately. So many teachers do a great job of this, but the impact is only increased as more educators step into that place of vulnerability talking about our missteps. It’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it.
These five suggestions aren’t magic. In fact, they’re far from it. If you try these out, it will make your job more complicated, more involved, but it will also make it more rewarding. Your impact as an educator doesn’t happen by accident. What are you doing this summer to make sure you make the impact you want next year? What else should we add to this list?