This week I had the incredible opportunity to keynote for RU’s student teacher celebration. I was super anxious about putting together such a speech… especially because I’ve sat through far too many graduation speeches I never liked… I had around 6 people read and listen to my drafts before delivering the final product. The result was deeply personal and really the product of my journey through education from student teacher until now, at the completion of my master’s.
On that first day of student teaching; the day we finally get to grasp the reigns; many of us believe we are more than ready to take on the world of education…though we might be grasping white-knuckled. We realize pretty quickly though that we still have a lot to learn
Two weeks into my student teaching experience I was expected to do a series of demonstrations on circular motion. You know, swinging buckets of water over your head. I had practiced the night before and with full confidence did not feel the need to practice the morning of. I got this I thought.
I grabbed the strings tied to the pie tin filled with red water, flung it over my head and SPLASH… red water everywhere…like a cheap horror flick. Except the only thing I had murdered was my pride. I learned one thing that day: always practice the demos that morning.
I proceeded to successfully complete the demo the next hour, only for my nervous fidgeting fingers to dump the water AGAIN as I explained the demo, my cooperating teacher laughing uncontrollably at me. The story should end here, lesson learned… but it doesn’t.
A week later I had the immense privilege of attending the national meeting for physics teachers which just happened to be in Chicago. I was sitting in a room with a handful of teachers I held in high regard, including my former AP Physics teacher. Teachers were presenting “take-5’s” 5 minutes to talk about a good idea for class, and one teacher shares the brilliant idea of using the cardboard circles from the pizza place as a platform for swinging water over your head.
I tried to sink low in my chair to avoid the elbowing and snickering happening next to me. After the take 5 the teacher asked if anyone wanted his sample. My cooperating teacher and his colleague sprung from their seats pointing at me: “she does!”… I was wishing I could dissolve into the chair. The story, of course, was shared with the REST of the teachers in the row (including my former AP teacher) but then…. something special happened. This cardboard circle got passed down the line of teachers and they each signed it leaving me words of encouragement and advice.
Today I have the great privilege and honor of doing the same for you. Hopefully without any embarrassment on your part.
If I were to ask what makes a great teacher we would all agree on one answer: relationships. A teacher who cares for their students as humans, shows compassion, goes above and beyond. We each know have been touched by at least one of these teachers. Many of you today might even be able to name THEE teacher who inspired you to go into the profession yourself. When tonight is over I call on each of you to send a note to that “one” great teacher.
My one is John Lewis, my AP Physics teacher from 2005 whose life and legacy continue to impact me to this day. Mr. Lewis was…quirky. His voice would crack at random, he seemed far too fascinated in minutia, and every day we started class by playing a game by his rules, not the normal ones. For example, “one of these things is not like the other” but then he would ask us to find a way to make everything go together. Mr. Lewis believed in celebrating “yes moments” which are similar to Annie’s “bright spots” but are a specific celebration of tenacity and the final breakthrough when reaching an accomplishment. Mr. Lewis continued to act as a mentor to me throughout and beyond my college years, pushing me to be involved in our professional organizations, and in short order pushing me to present..
I had the unique privilege of working with John back at my old high school. I got to observe him from a different lens, that of a colleague, and how he navigated negativity and school politics while continuously upholding his own values and morals. It is easy to believe that our systems are so broken that it is impossible to work in them when we are fundamentally at odds with the foundation of the system itself. John proved this to be otherwise: when you focus on that which you can control, you can create lasting impacts.
John’s mentorship was so subtle I almost didn’t realize it was happening. I truly believed it was my unique and special relationship…until I I met another new teacher who was also his former student. We ended up casually comparing notes and found that we had both experienced very much the same process, down to the graduation card signed “your colleague, John” this process was now revealed to me as subtle, methodical and absolutely brilliant. It has taken over a decade for me to recognize and decipher everything John did for me as a student and as a mentee, and none of this would have happened without a genuine relationship.
I want to pause for a moment and recognize that each and every one of you clearly has great capacity to be that teacher because you chose to complete this degree amidst a global pandemic. In a time where everything about relationship and connection was stripped from us. In a time of uncertainty, unrest and upheaval you finished this program and you are committed to this path. You already know that there is such a thing as depth of compassion that has no bounds, you have already gone above and beyond in so many ways and…..you haven’t even had to chaperone a field trip.
We also need to take a moment to recognize the community that formed and shaped you, supported you and grounded you. Whether this be a family member or a loved one, a friend or a faculty member. They need to know that this is their moment too. It is through the relationships around us that we are who we are.
Our very humanity is built on relationships. Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built, and this household, when filled with the community becomes the home to many, and sometimes the children even come back to visit. Teachers do not get to know the idea of “empty nesting”.
Teaching is unique because as students we often only truly see the value of what we learned long after we have left. Eventually we realized that Mr. Lewis’s voice cracked not because he had a problem, but because we had stopped paying attention. I realized when I began teaching in the gifted academy at Auburn that the games we played at the start of class were to coax us out of offering only the “right” answer when we were sure, and make us comfortable thinking outside of the box and offering anything we could think of
As teachers we are not only shaping moments in our students lives in their present, but we are creating lessons, whether for good—-or bad, that will be carried a lifetime. This is a great responsibility. Are you creating a home of belonging for your children?
In each and every choice that you make, from the way you greet your students to how you offer feedback, to random interactions in the hallway, you are expressing to your students what you believe is important.
Relationships can only begin through communication. The words we say carry weight and the way we say them determines their value. What are the values you wish to impart on your students? Who do you see yourself as? Are you the sage on the stage, the imparter of the gift of knowledge and wisdom to your students? Or are you a life-long learner? Fallible? A leader but also member and facilitator of your learning community? Our words should create the image that we desire our students to aspire.
Relationships are built on compassion and understanding, when we listen to learn we can try to understand another point of view, even if we do not agree with it. If a student asks you a question and you can’t do better than “because that’s the way it is” or “that’s the rule” or “because I said so” you have not been intentional in your choices. Ask WHY all of the time. WHY did my student respond this way WHY do I feel so passionate about this? What does my identity, positonality, relationships and prior experience bring to this classroom? What do my students value and why? And most importantly, when you ask these questions about your students and their families, don’t answer the question based on your own observations. Ask THEM.
Relationships are the foundation upon which the cornerstone of trust is laid. Trust is being able to say every day “Center your own learning. Ask for what you need, make space for what others’ need” and to be able to give that freely, even if it wasn’t the lesson plan today. Trust is believing that each child that walks through your door wants to be successful, even if every barrier has been built around them and thrown in their path that it seems the child in front of you is choosing to disengage. Trust is the space where “I don’t know yet,, I can’t do this yet” are valued for their honesty and openness to keep trying. When we lay the cornerstone of trust we set a precedent that all answers have validity, because even an incorrect answer or an answer steeped in misconceptions is an answer of value. Conversation is more important than correct responses.
Relationships in education extend beyond your classroom. As a teacher you commit to being a life-long learner. The teacher who refuses to learn, to become stagnant in their ways because “it’s the way things have always been done” or because “it works for them” has reached a point of intellectual death. Keep your mind stimulated and alive and never be too afraid, too embarrassed or too proud to ask for help or feedback. Mentorship doesn’t end because your formal education has ended. Find your trusted group of colleagues and find a mentor (or two, or three!). They can be in your building, in another building, another district, another state even! The pandemic has shown us just how open our world can be. Go to the conferences, connect with the community, and before you even think you’re ready…. SHARE what you are learning with others in as many different ways as you can.
We think we know what is best for us as we live in whatever moment we are in, but the wisdom in lived experience is how our mentors know how much discomfort is necessary for growth. Surrounded by teachers I admired, I never felt worthy of presenting in their company. But when you keep things to yourself you are keeping a gift away from someone who needs it.
Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built. Our students come to us with so many intersecting layers. Their identities are comprised of race, gender, class, citizenship, age, and ability. Students are also potentially coming to our classes with stereotype threat and imposter syndrome, which work together to cloud the joy and potential they could have in our classes. It is possible that for up to 17 years the child in front of you has been told explicitly or implicitly that they do not belong here, whether here means this country or this city, or this math class, or this AP class. Some of our students have been told they do not belong for so long they have no reason to believe otherwise. It is not our job to “save” the child. It is not our job to “inspire” our children. Children…yes, even the 17-year-old ones, are inspired by their natural wonder in the world around them. It is our job to show them that they too are a part of and can join the community in the areas of our expertise and passion and also how to be stewards of our world because their unique contribution based on their unique experience matters. When we show a student they belong and are valued in our world, we show them that we believe their lives matter.
I want to close with one last story. Teachers will never say they have a favorite class, but…. There are certain classes that are uniquely special. It was my 8th hour class my first year at Auburn. This class was special, not because of anything I did, but because of the love and joy of my students. In April, with only 8 weeks left, we received a new student into the class. She had moved from Chicago where she went to a magnet school and rode the public bus two hours each way to go back and forth from school. She was brilliant and motivated. She had a plan for her life she intended to execute. She was welcomed with open arms into the family home of our classroom. She shared that our class was the only one where she talked because it was the only class she felt she belonged. When finals week came around she was absent and I made the mistake of not following up. It was the last day of the school year and it’s not uncommon for students to come in and out of Rockford. I assumed she moved back to Chicago.
Summer passed and a new school year started and I ran into her in the hall. Shocked and surprised I asked her how her summer was and what happened to her during finals. She proceeded to share a lengthy story, none of which was her faulty, and resulted in her moving in with her grandma in Chicago during finals. I asked her if anyone else knew. She said no, she just wanted to get her credits so she could graduate and go to college. Standing before me was this brilliant, resilient young woman, so familiar with barriers that she had no fight left to give. I, on the other hand, was ready for battle. How could we make this girl make up 4 semester credits when we only knew her for 8 weeks? I went to the counselor and shared the story, he was on the same page as me and he worked with teachers to create a plan for the student to get her rightly deserved credits. She was able to graduate on time and with a scholarship to her college. It is important to note that this is not my success story. This is the success of that whole class who created a place where she belonged and felt valued. A place she knew she would be trusted, and that trust formed through the relationships in that class.
Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built, and this household, when filled with the community becomes the home to many. What is the house that you will build?