At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Friday, May 3, 2013

An Open Letter to Teachers

I'm sure there were some in the educational field who might have resonated with my earlier post from Wednesday this week, complete with some firm yet hopeful encouragements for those of us with children in school. But now the business of exhortation bends back on our profession. Yes, we can't run from it either.

Drum roll, please. My Ten Commandments for teachers.

1. Sometimes it's not about the lesson. There are many days when our victory is not in working through a Shakespearean sonnet in wistful, inspiring fashion. It is not going to be the time when we thunderously deliver the Pythagorean theorem to our geometry students. There are going to be those occasions when the meaningful event of the day will be when you sit with an introverted freshman at lunch and make their day. Or when you hand back a paper a student think she's bombed and your constructive comments and encouragement thrill her soul. And there are those times when you notice that kid in the fourth row who hasn't smiled in three days and you turn a phrase into a joke and his dour aura vaporizes into a belly laugh, all because you said to yourself, "I don't care if everyone gets it or not, I just need to break that face and make him smile." Very often these times--not your PowerPoint on Charlesmagne--will be the moments that students remember.

2. Keep ALL your correspondence: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'll take these in reverse order. In the rare epochs of parental discord and frustration, make sure you document, document, document. Administrators don't like surprises, and you need to wallpaper your rear end with enough clear communication to cover Windsor Castle. If a principal or department chairperson happens to observe you in action and they write out some pointed, constructive criticism, make sure you hold on to that. Come back to those words once in a awhile and keep them in front of you, not for humiliation but for motivation. When you do improve in pedagogy, it helps to have a marker from the past to see how far you've traveled. And...hold on to every kind note, every glowing email, and every card of overflowing gratitude. You'll have some dark days in this profession, and sometimes the thing that gets you through the valley of the shadow of death is a trip down memory lane.

3. Physical health is essential. In Latin, the phrase is Mens sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a sound body. You don't have to compete in the Ironman Triathalon, but some form of regular exercise is critical for whooshing out the storm and stress of the work day. As Reese Witherspoon said in Legally Blonde (and I'm already cringing at the knowledge I'm quoting from that movie in a serious blog post), "Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy!" Some sort of commitment to physical wellness has ripple effects into mental and emotional goodies, as well. It centers you and empowers you for the teaching task ahead in all its twists and turns.

4. Laugh. Students need to realize that even if education isn't always fun, it's always interesting. But the teacher sets the pace in this regard, and there is nothing fact, it's downright helpful once a week to show a YouTube clip of epic painful fails, a three-minute video compilation from Wipeout, or tell them a funny story about bumbling criminals or something from the Darwin Awards. It breaks up the pace of the school day and reassures students there is a wider life to which we are connected, and it can be downright hilarious. Often, our kids are craving that sort of tonic.

5. Read. It doesn't matter why. Read something in your subject area. Read fiction to escape from the present grind. Read something about woodworking or small engine maintenance. Read for professional development, read to others, read to be entertained. Trade paperbacks, hardcovers, Kindle, Nook, iPad. Whatever the reason, be engaged in reading. We carry more of this activity into the classroom than we know, and the more intellectually equipped we are, the better. I've already spoken to the need for fit bodies, but we also need fat minds as well.

6. Don't create hate. You might not be able to control if someone will thoroughly enjoy your subject. Kids tend to have various gifts and abilities that can bring about a "lean" in one area or another. But I am convinced that we can control if a student will hate our subject. Teachers who put forth sneering demeanors, bitter (rather than constructive) sarcasm and joking, and are exhibiting exasperation toward perceived student confusion instead of viewing it as curiosity and wonder...these folks threaten to consign their classes to the ash heap of memories. And another thing: Overloading on homework, tests, and papers? You'd better have a good reason to act as if your class is the only one that exists, and I haven't heard such a reason yet.

7. Your students are NOT your most important community. During the fall of 2000, I was running on fumes. Our son Joshua was in the hospital with dehydration and respiratory issues. Christy was with him at the hospital most of the time, but the day came when I needed to call a sub and be there for and with her. My headmaster at the time, Ron Sykes, was quick to affirm that was the right thing to do when he gently told me, "Remember, what you've got going on there with your family is more important than what you've got going on here at school." He hit the nail on the head. A teacher's primary relationships with family need to be in shape. How we approach others will inform how we treat our students. I Timothy 3 says that an elder in the church "must manage his own household well." It makes sense that the primary bonds for a teacher need nurturing, too.

8. Rules without relationships equal rebellion. I'm not promoting anarchy here. Of course, you need a behavioral framework. In most schools, this is called the student-parent handbook. By all means be consistent in dealing with infractions. But it helps to keep things simple. I tell my students every year it all comes down to four major areas: Be prepared (have all your stuff), be on time (tardies and absences are bad), look like you're supposed to (dress code), and act like you're supposed to (respect to teacher and others). But if students view a teacher primarily as a judge and not an ally or advocate for their success, there's a problem. The teacher whose number-one passion is law and order rather than teaching tends to lean toward martial law, which breeds its own particular issues.

9. Be real. Students can smell a fake a long distance away. They don't want someone who wears a mask. They want someone whom they know they can trust, whose word means something, and who embraces their own shortcomings and difficulties. Not that every day is the proper time to emote, but it's critical to realize that teachers be genuine and authentic without sacrificing their authority. Last November, I read a short story to my class. It was on the fourth anniversary of our son Jordan's death and I shared the story with my Ethics students because I had written it from Jordan's perspective as if he was having a conversation with Jesus in heaven. Many students were visibly moved. One in particular brushed her tears, came up afterward and hugged me and said, "Thank you for opening up to us." In reality, that's what students want: openness. It's not the easiest thing to find today.

10. Enjoy this. In business, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You get one shot at parenting your own kids. And as far as teaching goes, you have a grand opportunity to live it up every day. Of course, in five, ten, twenty years, you may be doing something completely different. But you will always remember your teaching days. There will always be moments that drive you crazy. The political machinery can send you over the edge. Parents may baffle you. You won't get along with every single one of your co-workers. But ultimately, the habitat you can (and should) truly enjoy is that classroom with your students. All the other aspects of teaching can vacillate; the classroom community should be a constant. Trust me on this, my friends: From our profession, we help create every other profession. We have lasting, ongoing impact. If that doesn't juice your chops, what are you doing in education?


11. Write a letter. Yes, seriously. Not an email. Not a text message. A letter. On stationery or official school letterhead. And do the following. Once a year, think back to a teacher who inspired you, pushed you, mentored you, or connected with you. Go back through the memories, the stories, the defining events of your class. And thank him or her. You never know when your words might be the perfect tonic for someone who is going through professional doubts or personal darkness. We teachers latch onto encouragement like Jimi Hendrix latched onto a guitar. It's an exercise well worth it. And maybe you'll find your former students-turned-teachers doing likewise, as well.

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