We hear about all the great teachers in the counseling office. The one who set the times tables to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” ensuring kids will remember them forever, even if it will take a while to get to eight times nine. Mr. Jones, the history teacher who dressed up like Benjamin Franklin for an entire week and never once broke character. The tenth grade English teacher who finally explained “I after e” in a way that made sense. When you put that much thought into a lesson, it’s makes for memorable teaching.
Of course, that’s not the only way teachers become memorable. The teacher who said just the right words at just the right time to the bully who had incredible art talent, making the student more comfortable with who they really were, and less of a bully. The teacher who wore the cut-rate perfume a special needs student gave her at Christmas, every time that student had a spelling test—the same perfume she’d wear when attending that student’s graduation from medical school. The teacher who shows up at the Saturday soccer league and cheers loudly for all of her students on the sidelines, even though her students are spread throughout both teams, and it’s forty degrees out.
You can’t analyze a test score to determine what these teachable moments do to the learning and learning habits of students, but everyone seems to understand what they do to students’ learning, and students’ lives. Like recess, these teachable moments inspire in ways we can’t quite measure, but we still know their worth is beyond measure.
These aren’t just discrete, feel-good stories. Most of my counseling work for the last thirteen years has involved working with students in college placement. In that time, every student—every single one—has had the chance to go to college; most have earned at least one merit scholarship, and for those who have been out for four years or more, nearly all of them have finished college on time.
Almost none of that is due to me. It’s a tribute to the teacher who took a group of six year-olds into the woods for an entire class period and told them to watch and listen—and they did; to the teacher who had flags from 45 nations in his fourth-grade Social Studies classroom, and talked about the country each flag represented for a full year; to the two teachers who took significant scorn from their colleagues every year they wanted to team teach Lord of the Flies, because it threw such a wrench into the middle school schedule.
Making the most of college—and learning a trade for that matter—isn’t at all about getting in. It’s about the absorbing, the becoming, the grappling of new ideas that doesn’t end until the idea is now an honored friend. That state of mind, the acquisition of the habits needed to do that kind of learning, is the essence of teaching. It is alive and well in the classrooms of the colleagues I eat lunch with. More important, it is in the hearts, minds and souls of the students they serve.
This week reminds me of the story of the principal who was interviewing candidates for a middle school English position. The first five interviews were all remarkably short, where the principal asked each candidate what they taught. When they responded, “I teach English”, the principal said, “I see. Well, thank you for coming in.”
The interview with the sixth candidate started with the same question, “What do you teach?” When the candidate responded, “Why, I teach students about the wonders of the English language”, the principal responded with, “I see. Tell me more about that.”
It is one thing to consider Teacher Appreciation Week as a triumph over the long odds of limited budgets, aging facilities, crowded classrooms and wonky Internet connections. That’s an important discussion to have, but this week is more about those who serve, and what they leave their students with. In the end, that is all teaching ever was; it is what it must continue to be, if our world is to continue to flourish.