You may know that I am also an educator, and in my job, I follow trends and research. So I care about online and blended learning and the promise of its ability to enhance teaching and learning. I know about the focus on resilience and about teaching more experience-based and relevant skills. I value metrics like standardized test scores and university success; and I even care about facilities and governance. I care about schools – and students in particular! – so everything matters, even the number of students per class.
But here’s the thing. As I sit and think about the year ahead and my own children, I have a slightly different set of priorities. I don’t care about these things nearly as much as I care about one thing: my children’s teachers. And I don’t actually care if there are 12 students in the room or 30 – I really don’t! – and I know that research shows that I am not alone for when asked to choose between a great teacher with a big class and a not-so-great teacher with a small class, everyone chooses the great teacher.
Whatever the trend in education, there is one constant: great schools have great teachers.
Great teachers get to know their students. Really know them. I want you to know Jacob and Kathleen. I worry about this because both of them work hard and they both like to blend in with the other kids so neither will be on your radar at first. They are those good kids that sometimes get lost in the middle. I hope you take the time to know their individual traits. Like all kids, even those raised in the same home, mine are different. Jacob will ask for help so getting to know him will be easier. I hope you will have patience with his questions, and I hope you will push him to work more independently. But I also hope you come to love his questions, as this is something we really value, and we believe it is one of his greatest strengths. Kathleen, on the other hand, will avoid asking questions in class, and she catches on quickly to concepts. Her strength is that she is social, so she can be trickier to know. I hope you call on her to draw her out, and I hope you ask her questions to stretch her thinking. It takes time to get to know the quirks of different students, and great teachers invest in relationships. Great teachers know that it is the connection with their students that is the most important link to their effective learning.
Great teachers also share their passions. Like Jacob and Kathleen, you are probably quirky. We all are! I hope you have the courage to show your real self to the class. If you love a particular subject, and I hope you do have a passion for the curriculum, please share that love with them. And if you have a love for something beyond the curriculum, please share that with them too. Be yourself. Tell them what you’re reading, what you’re interested in, what you think about. I want them to see that you are inspired, so then they will be inspired by you. I want them to feel your excitement. Great teachers make connections with their students by actually seeking out and reacting to their suggestions and opinions, by being open and honest and authentic with them, by being passionate about their own interests and what they believe in, by believing and having faith in them, by investing in them in a personal way. A tall order! Please take care of yourself so you can keep going to school each day with energy to be a role model for learning to them. They deserve it… and so do you.
I want to end with one of my favourite reflections about the impact of great teachers on young people, which comes from Ken Dryden’s book In School. After visiting countless schools, he recounts:
I’d ask kids about their school, why in some courses they did well and in others they didn’t. I’d ask them, as I came to ask adults as well, if they had a favourite teacher. And I found that everybody has one. Usually a classroom teacher, sometimes a parent or coach. And when answering, it always started by saying, “He was funny” or “She had lots of energy” – then they would always end up at the same place – “She treated me like a real person”; “He cared about me”; “She noticed if I had a bad day, or a good day…if I was away…” Then they’d become passionate. One after another, they would say the same thing. Never a word about how well a teacher knew History or Calculus. Never a word about curriculum or computers. It was all about “relationships” and “respect”. Something personal. If a teacher tries to understand me, treats me like a person, I want to be around them. I want to do things for them. I want to learn. I try harder. In everybody’s head – young, old, rich, poor – the same image of the good teacher. The same understanding of when good learning and good teaching happen. And moment to moment, day to day – as they talk, connect, understand each other – that is what is happening when there is effective learning. Good teachers, as you know, teach subjects, but first and foremost, they teach kids.
Have a great year,