As you may know, I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by highlighting former students and how they are living extraordinarily. While I've had a sense of what they were doing in life through social media or face-to-face interaction, it's been lots of fun catching up with them digging into their adult lives. I've also enjoyed hearing their reflections on a year spent with me as their teacher.
The answers I am receiving are not what I might have expected. I thought I would get something like, "I learned the value of hard work by all the nasty assignments you gave me." Or maybe, "I enjoyed using computers in your class, and now I'm inspired to use them all the time." I didn't even get to hear, "I'll never forget that creative assignment we did on..."
While there were occasional references to something learned through an assignment or project, most of the responses so far have dealt with me as a person. "You apologized when you made a mistake." "You took us out to eat as a reward." "You were transparent with us."
I'm certain these students learned something from me. I've taught a lot of lessons on fractions and sentences, decimals and paragraphs. I've walked through my weight in Country Reports and have taught my way through A Father's Promise 29 times. I can quote Psalm 139:1-14 nearly flawlessly because I've heard it more times than I can count. We've researched the Holocaust and the Japanese-American Internment together. These kids walk away from me learning facts, concepts, and skills...but that's not what they remember.
As I pondered these thoughts, I turned to my high school study hall (with all of two students in it at the moment) and asked them, "What makes a good teacher?" A senior girl immediately responded, "They have to be relatable." Now, relatable isn't really a word, but the concept is pretty clear. If you cannot relate to the student, if the student can't relate to you, you're not going to be an effective teacher.
And I pondered more and turned to Facebook. I asked my Facebook friends to tell me what made their favorite teacher so good. Twenty-one people responded with all sorts of answers. They ranged from former students in their 20s to grandparents and everything in between. Since the question was open-ended, there were all sorts of answers, but the answers were very interesting. An overwhelming eleven people mentioned something about caring about students. Only five people said anything about subject matter, whether being passionate about the content or fairly teaching the content on the test. (See below for the actual conversation.)
It's easy to be wrapped up in content and objectives and standards. There are schedules to keep and standardized tests to survive. We have lesson plans to write and papers to grade. And, don't forget discipline issues and best practices. These are all important aspects to being a good teacher. But if these things define who we are as teachers, we've missed our calling.
In A Father's Promise, the class novel I taught for 15 years, Rudi's dad is quoted as saying, "People, Rudi. People are more important than things." When we realize that we teach children or teenagers, not a particular subject area, we get the horse before the cart again. When we can relate to these kids, they know we care... and the subjects we teach may begin to be meaningful to them as well.
I don't pretend to be the best teacher in the world, nor would I say that every student walked away from my class feeling like I was in their corner. However, I hope that all this pondering will help me take a moment in class tomorrow to listen to my students' lives and let them know they are important to me.
How will your students know you love them?
---------------------------------------------------------------------Here is my Facebook question and all the answers, with personal identifiers deleted.