The last few weeks have been, to say the least, eventful. I was given the honor of being chosen as the new 8th grade ELA Master Teacher at Stuart Middle School. What a change it has been. On top of trying to meet tons of new colleagues, wrapping my head around my new job, and moving into a coaching and mentoring role, I found myself lacking what I had just so recently found…my teaching identity. My teaching soul. I, even as I write this, struggle to know who I am in this new setting. And on top of all of that, I felt that this space would be unsustainable. It needed some extra connective tissue. It needed to be about bigger things than just the observations at work.
So, as I said, there has been quite a monumental shift in my life; there has been much to think about. Hence my short, likely unnoticed (knowingly self-deprecating…go ahead and laugh), hiatus. Thankfully, I think I have begun to crawl back out of that hole. I will explain in two parts and then, hopefully, tie it back together.
Honoring the Students
As I have settled into my new role, I have had the good fortune of running into some wonderful pieces of insight. The first comes from an article posted on Edutopia entitled, “What Makes for a Master Teacher?” And while I read this article, I was blown away by a single concept. Ben Johnson writes:
“In many cases, there are students who have to take care of their siblings in the morning, get them ready for school, feed them, then hop on a city bus or subway, and then after school doing everything in reverse, and then they have a part-time job and go to work all evening to help the family income. Many students make significant sacrifices to even get to school every day.”
Then the moment Johnson took my breath away. “We need to honor their sacrifices by honoring their time with real learning.”
I get it. Fluff days happen. And for the teachers who truly care, they happen rarely. But even rarely is too often. If the professional goal of a teacher is to teach, then that is what we must do day in and day out. Look around. Teachers aren’t always considered the epitome of what it means to be a professional. Why? Too many stories about movie days and fluff lessons could be a start. To paraphrase Janine Paul of The Verbal Judo Institute, it only takes one to ruin the reputation of an entire entity. So how is this connected to identity and policy? Stay tuned…
Being the Middle Wo(man)
Ask a teacher why they may feel hamstrung as a professional in our society, they very well may say it is that the people who make the laws and curriculum aren’t actually in the classroom. Ask a parent why they feel any emotion about the school system, they will likely respond in a manner that is dependent upon their understanding of what their child is learning, why they are learning it, and the manner by which it is taught. They don’t care about policy. They care about their kid, and justifiably so. There is a disconnect. Look below.
When a school or society makes a policy, they rely on the teacher to bring that vision to the students and parents. When a parent is operating under the influence of rage, joy, or any other emotion, they don’t associate that emotion with the policies of the state or nation, but rather with the teacher who their child sees every day. The teacher is the middle man. It is the teacher’s responsibility to see the policies of their superiors done with fidelity, while helping the clientele understand the whys, whats, and hows. And, on top of it, teachers are often asked to be the ones who break through the negative emotions of students and parents to help them see the greater picture.
So again you ask…policy and identity and being the middle man…what’s the connection? Here it comes.
Here is what it comes down to. Teachers teach because they are called to do it. It is in their DNA. Once they learn that about themselves, and truly honor students with quality, engaging education, powerful change will come. Teachers need to know thyself. Teachers need to embody the fact that teaching is an art, a science, a passion, and a profession unlike any other. It is unique in that has facets of almost every other profession within it. Furthermore, teachers must understand that they have to bring that central, passionate identity to every interaction. Policy won’t change until our voice is valued. And that won’t happen until we are no longer middle men, but rather change agents from within the system (cue double-agent spy music).
Whether in sports, the workplace, or regular life, our strength as a society comes not from the individual, but from the collective. When each individual works to be the best part of the greater society, everyone is better. In education, a teacher’s identity is theirs. It is not mandated by state policy, building procedures, or the newest fad. It belongs solely to them. And the process of understanding that identity can be, if fostered correctly, almost sacred to a teacher.
A teacher is there to teach, and it should by dogmatic to honor a student with a high class education. Only in doing so, and with an understanding of a teacher’s personal style and abilities, will policy finally change. Carol Ann Tomlinson writes, “A great coach never achieves greatness for himself or his team by working to make all his players alike.” I am a teacher. Though our skills differ, we together embody the profession of education. Together, we can change perception, policy, and the conversation around our noble calling. Know who you are, know what we can be, and let’s get some change done.
And for me, that change begins this year as I continue to get my new school a new reputation by embodying the change I want to see in the education world. Hopefully, I can bring a few along with me for the ride.
Johnson, B. (2011, March 31). What Makes for a Master Teacher? Retrieved July 27, 2016, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/master-teacher-definition-ben-johnson
Paul, J. (26, July 07). The Contact Professional. Speech presented in Kentucky, Louisville.