Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Small Thing Everyone Can Do

It can seem huge and hopeless, the large scale of the current battle for the soul of public education in this country. But there is a useful, positive, strengthening, helpful action that every single one of us can take.

Write a letter.

Because here's two things I know about teachers.

Thing one. We work mostly in isolation, with our main human contact the small persons we work with every day. Get busy with classroom stuff and you might not talk to another adult at all for days at a time. And with rare exceptions, we certainly don't watch each other work. We have a pretty good idea of what our colleagues are up to, but we rarely actually watch them in action. Teachers work mostly on little separate islands.

Thing two. All good teachers have doubts. Show me a teacher who says, "You know, I've basically got this whole thing locked down, and there's really nothing about my teaching that I need to fix in any way" and I will show you a lousy teacher. Every good-to-great teacher I have ever known can tell you, right now, at least five things they are hoping to do better next year. It's one of the challenges of the work-- you know what you would be getting done if you were perfect, and you know just how far you are from that place. Every year you can get better, closer to that place. But you never get there. I've been at this for about thirty-five years, and while I am not remotely God's gift to teaching, I do okay. But I will still spend my summer trying to find ways to fill some of the gaps in my work. And that's before we even talk about those days (rarer with each year but never wiped out completely) when I go home and think, "Well, damn. Today I was definitely not awesome."

So, the letter. Here's my suggestion.

As you start your summer vacation, write somebody a letter, somebody you know, somebody you work with. Tell them why you appreciate them. Tell them what you think they did well. Tell them why you're glad you work with them. Tell them something good about themselves.

I know it's hokey, but we all know the power of these sorts of letters. Admit it-- you have a drawer somewhere with the notes you've gotten from parents or students thanking you. So why can't you create a letter like that for somebody else?

If you believe in certain qualities, if you believe that certain behaviors and choices make the world better, you have to call them out when you see them. If you want those qualities to win the fight, you have to strengthen them, and you strengthen them by acknowledging them, by supporting them.

Here are the rules.

1) It does not have to be long and involved. Keep it simple. "I'm glad I worked with you this year because..." or "I respect the work you've done this year because..." or just "Thank you for your work this year."

2) You do not have to send it to a perfect human. Sometimes we don't want to praise someone for doing X because they are such a jerk about Y. Get over it. If they did a good thing, they did a good thing. You're writing a note, not a recommendation for the Nobel prize.

3) Write it on paper. They cannot put an email in the Drawer of Letters That Remind Them Why They Do This.

That's it.

Now, I know that writing these letters will not immediately cause the Common Core movement to collapse or Arne Duncan to become a supporter of teachers or high stakes standardized testing to suddenly shrivel up in the sun. But it will give someone just a little more strength to do the work that really matters, the work in a school that actually gets the education done, that actually takes care of the students. It will not change everyone's world entirely, but it will make one person's world just a tiny bit better, and that is certainly not a bad thing.

And for those of us who write it, it's a way to remind ourselves, as we brush off the dust and chaos of another year's end, why we do this, what we value, and why we are already a little bit excited about coming back in a few months to start all over again.

Write a letter. Seriously.


  1. I so much love your writings because they speak so directly about what is in my heart. Somehow you put into words what we as teachers go through, feel and think. This is a great idea. As president of my local union I plan to do this and encourage others to do the same. This year I am having a difficult time getting my excitement back for a new year. Too often, I feel a sense of dread. Maybe focusing on others will help me get my mojo back.

  2. I've been doing a lot of this lately. I hand write the letter, often during writing time in school, and then scan it into an email. That way I don't have to wait to find an envelope and stamp, but the handwritten effect is still huge.

  3. I relayed your post to my colleagues, and although having receeived positive reaction, I'm still waiting for my letter.