Sometimes it’s exceedingly serendipitous the way topics for this blog arrive on my doorstep. This past week, at our regular monthly faculty meeting, the principal announced that we would be working on a vision project: what do we want for the future of our school? What vision do we have for ourselves and our school as we look towards the future?
To begin this conversation, we were divided into random groups across all grade levels and asked to discuss questions about how we as a group treat one another, how we treat our students, and what makes our school a great place in which to work. We came back together after about twenty minutes to share our ideas, and then we were given a homework assignment, to answer additional, more personal questions, the first of which was, “When you leave our school, what do you want to be remembered for?”
I was practically jumping for joy at being asked this question! And I swear, I’m not making this up. I filled out my questionnaire thoughtfully but briefly with four bullet points, and turned it in, knowing that I could write more deeply here about my answers.
When I leave the school — next June — I want people to remember that first I was an advocate for kids. I believe that most of the time my school does a pretty good job at that, but not always. Being an advocate requires empathy as well as respect, and remembering that each one of our students has their own baggage and we might never know how heavy that baggage may be. And I’m not talking about saying “It’s OK if you didn’t do your homework, Johnny. I know your home life is hard.”
Maybe this example might clarify: I once had a student whose older siblings I also taught, so I have some knowledge about the family dynamics. This student had a lot to be angry about and sometimes that anger at the world would show up in smart-mouth comments that resulted in many disciplinary actions. One day, I asked her to join me in the hall for a private conversation, and of course she immediately thought she was in trouble. But what I said was, “You are one of the best writers in your whole grade.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m very serious. But you’re also one of the worst at spelling and punctuation and all that stuff. I know it’s because you don’t care, and I get it. But when you go to high school, your teachers there are most likely just going to see all those mistakes and you’ll get your papers back all marked over with red ink. Your teachers aren’t going to see beyond the mistakes. I love your writing because you really have something to say, and you have a lot of really amazing and creative ideas and opinions, and I want you to be successful when you leave here. Can we work on your editing skills so that next year you can show your teachers what a great writer you really are?”
Obviously I’m condensing and reconstructing here, but that’s the gist of the conversation. What I was trying to do was get this student to a place where she could think of the learning to edit as a way to win, because when it feels like the world is against you, you have to win or pretend it doesn’t matter anyway. I want my students to win.
As an advocate for kids, I work to point out to them what they do well so that they can do more of it. When I grade their writing, I try to put positive comments in the margins, and I limit the number of errors I circle. Imagine getting back a paper that is filled with corrections — who would have the ability to want to try to improve when all the teacher can see is all the mistakes? I believe that students (who are people, too) can learn how to fix two or three things at a time before terminal frustration sets in. That way, they are able to improve the quality of their writing, and they also leave my class with an “I can” attitude. At least, that’s my goal.
Middle school kids often don’t feel very good about themselves even when there’s no reason for them to feel that way (at least from an adult perspective), and life is confusing for them as they work to sort out who they are and where they fit in. Some days they can function with a very mature level of understanding in the morning, and by afternoon it’s all falling apart. As a middle school teacher, I need to be able to ride those ups and downs and still teach them comma rules. All in forty-minutes a day. They have to know I’m on their side.
My second bullet point on the list of what I want to be remembered for: That I helped my students to discover their own strengths and creative gifts. I think I’ve already addressed how I help them discover their own strengths, but the creativity piece is a little different. I assign projects that offer student choice, and I do this through multiple intelligences. In my English classes, I offer a menu of choices for reading responses, with each choice focused on one of the areas of M.I. theory. Infused into this philosophy is the recognition that integrating the arts into the classroom on a regular basis is vital to the full development of the human brain.
Examples of arts-based project work can be found in my Heroes and Virtues unit. After we spend time learning about twenty or so specific virtues, students choose a hero to research and then work on a multi-genre writing project. As part of this project they must create a visual component to represent the hero. I tell them they are limited only by their own imaginations as to what the visual might be; it can be two- or three-dimensional, and I have a large assortment of materials for students to use. We also have a “Be Your Hero” party, when we all dress as our heroes, wear name tags, and play the role of that person. I’ve witnessed conversations between Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe as well as Winston Churchill and Todd Beamer. A third arts based component of this unit has been for students to put together a treasure box, with five artifacts that the hero would have valued. These boxes have contained such artifacts as a model of Muhammed Ali’s bicycle and Helen Keller’s doll. When students “go public” with creative presentations demonstrating their depth of thinking for projects like these, they see their peers’ positive responses, and they understand that they are smart and capable. And creative.
Each of my last two tenets has roots with colleagues as well as students. My third bullet point: That I helped to make HCS a great place to be. I have served on countless committees and taken on many extra projects in order to help the school be a better place. Sounds terribly corny as I write it here, but I do believe that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of our community. I always need to work extra hours in order to do these extra things, just as corporate executives, attorneys and other salaried professionals do. If educators want to be treated like the professionals we are, then we need to behave that way.
My last bullet: That I have made a difference. A dear friend of mine, years ago, told me that she believes that all people have one inner driving force that guides everything we do. Hers is a deep fear of failure. This one, making a difference, is mine. I have no idea how it got there or how it came to be inside me. It just is. It’s something that I need to do in order to be true to myself. I don’t feel that I have to save the world — but I do have to know that I have done my best to help.
Maybe that’s what drove me to become a teacher. Maybe that’s what I need to think about as I prepare for the next adventure. I’ll be working on my personal vision for my future as my colleagues continue to develop a vision for my school.
What do you want to be remembered for?