In many of my teacher/staff-training workshops, I like to start with a protocol that I describe as “The Twilight Zone Supermarket Experience” (I’m realizing that very quickly I am dating myself with my cultural allusions and soon will have to accept the fact that many in my audience won’t have a clue to what I am referring!). I ask the assembled participant’s to project themselves into the future fifteen to twenty years. They are wheeling a grocery cart through the aisles when they hear their name called out from behind them. An excited former student approaches and says “Wow, you taught me twenty years ago. These are the things I remember about you and your class….”. I then ask them to quickly jot down what they think their legacy is to their students; the things for which they will be remembered. In the many years of guiding this activity, I have never gotten back that open statement with comments such as:.
“Wow, I really remember that you used to teach an amazing test-prep”.
“You were terrific at lining us up in size order and keeping us quiet”.
“You always, always, always had your objectives written on the board.”
“You taught a mean drill to make us remember the Pythagorean Theorem”.
“You always had a way of making sure that the subject matter you taught was way more important than anything that might have been going on in our lives”.
“When kids misbehaved in your class, you never hesitated to let them know who was in charge and quickly enforce the rules with zero-tolerance for excuses”.
The probable reason that I never get back comments like that is because teachers and staff predictably reflect on their former teachers and mentors. And when they do that, they realized they were inspired to enter the teaching profession for a whole lot more noble and lofty reasons than simply a love of subject matter.
Most often, this activity results in imagined comments from former students that include:
“You always had such a passion for us and for our success”.
“You always made sure to celebrate my voice and my opinions”.
“You made me feel special and that I can achieve more than I thought”.
“You were concerned about me as a person and not just me as a student”.
“I knew that you were always dependable”
“You challenged me to stretch myself and be a critical thinker and learner for life”.
“You never let me settle for anything but the best I had to offer”.
After reflecting on comments from teachers during the “The Twilight Zone Supermarket Experience”, we are better prepared to ask ourselves the question: what am I doing in my classroom today that will have the most impact on the students I teach? And just as importantly: what are the routines, protocols, procedures, systems in place that prevent me from being the type of teacher I want to be. Proponents of academic rigor tend to get a bit scared with these reflections. It’s a fear that, upon tending to the social/emotional needs of our students, there won’t be an environment to test, drill, evaluate, assess, and memorize like in the past. And my response to that is always the same…..Alleluia! If I am really concerned with advancing 21st Century skills in students to help create the engaged, concerned, empathic, resilient and civically engaged citizen that I want my students to become, I better leave the systems and dispositions behind that no longer serve to accomplish this.
School climate improvement efforts aren’t and shouldn’t be separate from educational reform efforts. They should feed each other and inform each other. We do not tend to the social/emotional needs of students at the sacrifice of their education. In fact, research has shown time and time again that neglecting SEL has a detrimental effect on grades, graduation rates, disciplinary issues, attendance, and teacher retention.
I’ve had the great fortune this year of collaborating with a small school district in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In the face of tremendous societal issues such as lack of employment, poverty, and a lack of opportunity for higher education, the school community tries heroically to keep front and center the focus on the centrality of youth. It has not always been a smooth course for the district and there have been tremendous obstacles to overcome. However, there is an incredible desire and commitment to improve school climate and not sacrifice this quest by being so beholden to mandates concerning testing and accountability that get in the way. I don’t want to give the impression that the district has plans to “go rogue” or radically transform the way that school is done (though it’s always exciting to see schools and district such as teachers in Seattle, WA take this route!). However, their driving energy comes from a true belief in the primacy of the student. It’s almost as if every staff member and teacher at the school has taken the amazing quote by Deborah Meier (a visionary and totally committed educator who is a model for us all) to heart: “Only secretly rebellious teachers have ever done right by our least advantaged kids.”
Brandon is a Math Teacher at the high school in the Pennsylvania school district that I mentioned. He is a dynamic and driven “coach” for his students and makes sure they know that they are the primary drivers in their learning and he’s there in the role of guide and mentor. He’s no-nonsense when it comes to making sure that students are on task, prepared, motivated, and engaged. And, perhaps most importantly, deep down, he realizes that he actually doesn’t teach Math at all. He teaches “himself” and Math is the vehicle by which he does that. He understands that, prior to imparting any knowledge on course content, he needs to be a model that the students can relate to. And that is probably the first and most important concept that I hope participants in my trainings grasp. I don’t teach subjects. I teach students. And in doing that, I teach “myself”. My character, my care, my concern, my empathy, my ability to see the best in students and guide them to seeing that too…all of those things create a strong environment to learn and to teach. And I might not be aware of that for about 20 years until I am rolling a grocery cart down the aisle of a supermarket and I hear my name called out!
Brandon is not the stereotypical analytical math teacher. He guides a student group (that is primarily student led!) called STAT: Students Taking Action Together. In myriad ways, this group realizes that it is through relationship building that schools create a climate that is worthy of every one of their members. I want to close this blog with a tremendous poem that Brandon wrote to express these ideas about “teaching myself”. Even the title of his poem has three or four different meanings that can give us pause and reflect on what the true ends of education need to be. Many thanks to Brandon for serving as a model of all that is right with school climate improvement!
Education for Me
Education for me isn't just about the ABC's and 123's
It's about the I’m here for you's and you can talk to me's.
It’s the “You can do it” and the “I know you can”
Molding young minds into a great woman or man.
It's a voice of reason and an ear to listen
Or the look on a face when encouragement is given.
It's a quick hello or a have a nice day
Knowing you may be the only one with that to say.
It's knowing you made a child believe they can do it
And the child knowing you will be there to see them through it.
Being there in that moment of frustration
Knowing you taught them the importance of determination.
It's showing a child the value of respect and hard work
A pat on the back or a smile that makes them feel self-worth.
It's entering your class with a smile and a kind word to say
Knowing your students are leaving with one for the rest of the day.
So when I step into my classroom to teach is my goal
But it's also to build up and feed all the starving souls.