Of all the retirement gifts I've received, by far the most moving has been a book put together by my daughter, my niece, and my wife. Through the magic of the interwebs, they were able to collect a whole bunch of personal messages from former students into a book. I won't lie-- it's pretty awesome, and mighty humbling.
It has also turned out to be one more opportunity to reflect on one of the big questions of teaching-- what is it that we do, exactly, that makes a difference for our students. What is it that they remember? We all wonder about it-- I just happen to have some answers right at my fingertips.
Some of it really is content-related on a fairly micro scale.
One day in Honors English, Mr. Greene said people only use hyphens when they don't know what to do. Now, every time I use a hyphen, I beat my chest and scream "I DON'T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO DO!" Then I get shushed by the Starbucks girl.
I'd like to thank Mr. Greene for all he's done; however, he is the reason I put semi-colons in text messages now...and I take a lot of shit for that.
Sometimes it is larger scale content material.
Sometimes it falls into the larger life lesson category.
From a list of "Things I learned in PAG's class"
Don't make excuses or apologize for your work; own what you've done, and if you're embarrassed by it then do it better.
You can't protest The Man by asking his permission to do so.
Much of it is extremely personal. Most years I gave personal gifts to each graduating senior on yearbook staff; one year it was beanie baby spirit animals, and one woman told me the story of how she carried that spirit animal through the next decade as a reminder of the kind of strength she has inside her. There are several stories like that in the book.
And I don't have to tell you (but I will) that not a single former student wrote to thank me with fond memories of those life-changing Big Standardized Tests, or how moved they were by how we dealt with Common Core standard 11.2-d/15b. I have notes from writers who thank me for helping them get started and teachers who thank me for being an example, even some who thank me for helping them figure out how to be a better human being, but none from someone explaining how taking the PSSAs really altered their life trajectory. Because none of that baloney makes anyone's "Top Ten Things About My Education That Really Mattered."
What is striking is how specific it all is. Some students remember broad themes and ideas of my class, but even then, they remember them attached to a very specific memory. They can quote me to me. They can remember not just specific works we read, but specific assignments or questions we dealt with regarding those works.
What's also striking is how many of those specifics remembered by my students are not remembered by me. That sparkler hamburger story? I remember how that young woman used to write, and the hamburger sparkler thing certainly sounds like me-- but I don't remember saying it. A student I taught about thirty years ago remembers being struck by my statement that every person is worth knowing. Again, I agree with that-- it sounds like something I would say. But I don't remember saying it.
It all confirms what I've always believed to be true-- that very specific moments in our classrooms often have powerful effects on our students, but we will never know ahead of time which moments will be the important ones. We may think that this particular moment that we plan and prepare and set up and lay a foundation for and think, "Boy, this is just going to be powerful" and instead, ten or twenty years later, it turns out that some unplanned moment that we just tossed off the hip stuck with students long after our carefully sculpted teaching moment is long forgotten.
What's a teacher to do? I don't know THE answer, but I know MY answer--
Build a strong foundation. Not in your class-- in yourself. Know why you're there. Know what you believe. Know what truths are important to you about your content, about your material, about the lives of the young humans you're dealing with. Carry all of that into the classroom with you every day. Make it the foundation of every carefully planned teaching moment you try to create, but if you have a clear strong foundation, know that when you are flailing into those unplanned moments, those off-the-cuff comments, or those moments when a student comes to you for help and you don't have time to plan anything out-- in all of those moments, your core belief and understanding comes through.
This is one other reason I don't believe in scripting-- because a teacher reading a script has no foundation in anything, and that will show through in every single unscripted moment. Worse, if the teacher's foundation is something like "these kids are dopes who can barely learn a simple thing" that will bleed through as well.
You won't mean for it to happen, but it will happen. In some specific, unplanned, unprepared moment, what you believe as your foundation will come through in a really clear, really specific way, and at least one student will see it-- really, really see it-- and that specific moment will stay with them for years, even decades.
So if you want a piece of advice from the back end of a career, here's one piece. Know why you're in the classroom, and be there for good reasons. Know what matters. Know your purpose, and the purpose of your materials. Know your materials. Know your content. And as quickly as you can make it happen, know your students.
No amount of superficial technique, no amount of technique focused tech, no amount of pre-planned material-- none of that can compensate for a hollow person standing in front of a classroom.
Yes, when you're young and you're starting out, you don't know all of these things. That's okay. No amount of teacher training could have fixed that. Your job for the first few years is to figure it out. (This is, incidentally, one more reason that someone who is only there for two years and fully plans to leave at the end of the two years-- that person is no more a teacher than someone who put on a parachute but never jumped out of the plane is a skydiver).
That is one of the beauties of teaching-- a staggering long progression of tiny, specific moments built on a foundation giant, broad ideas. It's like traveling across the Badlands of South Dakota on foot, or hiking through the Grand Canyon-- don't watch just your steps or just the awesome view, because both matter. Every step is critical and needs your attention, but if you never look up and around, you'll get lost and you'll miss the whole point. And you may never know which particular step each of your fellow travelers will remember-- so you make every step count.
And sometimes, if you're lucky, at the end of the journey, they give you a book.