As you finish your formal education and begin your first teaching position, I reflect on my own career in education and am compelled to offer some unsolicited advice. You come from a family that has been blessed with educational opportunities. You know that I attended public schools, though I have pursued my teaching career in independent (private) schools. Your mother attended a private school and has devoted a significant portion of her professional life to public schools. Education, as both students and teachers, pervades our family weltanschauung. You and your sister grew up steeped in endless dinner conversations about education, teaching, local and national policy, celebrating academic achievement, wrestling with inclusiveness and the challenges of underachievement in and by schools. You matured in a family environment that has, in addition to your formal education, prepared you for the challenges of teaching. Here, however, are some distilled thoughts from Dad about good teaching.
Seek a school whose values and culture are congruent with your own. I attended at least seven schools as an enrolled student, taught in five other schools, and been professionally engaged with perhaps a dozen more. Each of these schools had a distinct community with a unique character and culture. I found that, as a teacher and as a person, I’ve been at my best when I experience a high degree of harmony between my school’s culture/values and my own. I have found it to be more important than differences in compensation or impressive facilities. I learned this lesson the hard way. My caution is to not linger in a school that you feel moves counter to your own values and beliefs as an educator. Seek out a school that nudges you towards your best self.
When you stop saying “I could have done that better,” it’s time to leave teaching. Michael Levinson shared this wisdom with me as my principal in my second year of teaching. Teaching and learning meld together all the physical, intellectual, emotional and social dimensions of our human-ness. Education is a dance between teacher and student. There is always a better way to structure a lesson, present a concept, assist student learning, assess student understanding, etc. The best teachers are those who habitually search for that better way, from their first day in the classroom to their last. If you ever find yourself teaching via autopilot, it’s probably time to find a different way to make your contribution.
Content is not king. One has to know some things to do some things. Factual knowledge is important, even in an age where the world’s knowledge base is at our fingertips. That said, factual knowledge is the least important thing students acquire at school. More important are skills that allow students to adapt to a changing world, such as the ability to learn independently, to assess, filter, and interpret information, or to bridge disparate knowledge silos. But paramount are the social-emotional skills students gain in school: working collaboratively with people who speak, appear or believe differently, delaying gratification for a bigger goal, learning to be a change agent, recognizing one’s own talents and challenges, learning when to lead and when to follow, how to engage constructively in improving one’s place of work, community, nation, and the world. This kind of learning is education at its best.
Be mindful of the line between distance and intimacy. Students need teachers who set high academic and social standards. I think of this as leading from the front, saying to your students “we are headed up there.” All students respond to high expectations. Students also need you to be the adult in the room. This implies a certain professional perspective, or distance, between your students and you. Students also respond to teachers who connect on a human level, are compassionate, and empathetic. Good teachers appreciate that students travel unique, sometimes difficult and convoluted life paths into our lives and out again. This is leading from behind, being in the trenches with your students.
In my experience, teachers who successfully embrace these two seemingly contrary instincts have the most profound impact on their students. They are, in a sense, able to lead both from in front and from behind. Students of these teachers convey to each student “I respect the wonderful person you are,” along with “I expect great things from you.” The balance point is different for each child, and finding the balance will be a career-long challenge.
Resist a temptation to view parents as the enemy. Too often, teachers are suspicious, even fearful, of parents. There are reasons for this: schools don’t do enough to help parents feel connected to their child’s school, failing to promote an active sense of partnership between teachers and parents. Parents often feel they are being told “stay out.” Some parents fail to engage the school appropriately, bringing their own baggage to their child’s school. We live in an era when our sense of community is increasingly diffuse and abstract. Fewer teachers are immersed in the same community as their students and parents via public and civic life. Whatever the causes, it is easy for teachers to fear, avoid, even resent interactions with parents. In my experience this is an example of go towards what you fear. No one has more common ground with you, in terms of knowledge, goals, and dreams, than your students’ parents. Seek an open, honest, and mutually respectful relationship with them. Welcome parent contacts, and seek out opportunities to invite them into partnership with you. The vast majority of parents will welcome this and respond positively, Do not let the rare frustrating interaction throw you off your game. Strong, mutual partnerships with parents will strengthen the web of support around each child, make you a better teacher, and make your school a better school.
Seek out colleagues who nurture your best self. Teachers are among the most optimistic people I know. Through their students, teachers invest heavily in the future. Still, among any group of people (including a school staff), there will be toxic personalities. Be wary of colleagues who denigrate children in the privacy of the teacher’s lounge, who only criticize school leadership or put down parents, or whose words and deeds undermine a faculty culture of mutual support. Seek instead the friendship and guidance of colleagues who exhibit professional and personal balance, who manifest quiet joy in their work, who are not always the first to speak in faculty discussions, who reserve judgment, and who exhibit human respect for school leaders, parents, and children. They will further your teaching and nurture professional fulfillment.
Honor student voices. The quality of your classroom will be measured less by your voice and more by your student’s voices. Do student voices have a place in your classroom? Do they feel respected and honored? Are they listened to? Do children see themselves reflected in your classroom, on the walls and in discussions? Do they also have an impact? Honoring student voices is not about compromising your responsibility for shaping the educational environment of your classroom. It is about helping students to know you respect them, and showing that you expect each student to be engaged as a partner in the learning process. With a nod to Jamila Lyiscott for this closing wisdom: Remember you are not giving your students a voice. They already have those. Your task is to make space in your classroom for their voice to be heard.
I realize these thoughts above may or may not click - we are at different points on the arc of our lives and careers. Perhaps some bits will resonate with you now, others perhaps in the future. Teaching is a selfless act and a personal journey. I am proud of you for seeking work that you will surely find challenging, fulfilling, taxing, and rewarding.