Teachers talk all of the time. They desperately want to do the right thing for their students. They literally take their worries and concerns home, sometimes keeping them awake in the dark of night. Their constant worry is whether or not they have done all that they possibly can. They wonder what is really most important for preparing their charges for life. Is a laundry list of knowledge and skills enough, or is there actually something more important than grades and test scores? What is the recipe, the correct ingredients, the proper method for putting a life together?
This past weekend I was with two extraordinary educators and a student who is on the brink of launching her career after spending most of her life learning. We spoke of our concerns about education and all agreed that what is too often missing is the opportunity to help young people develop a foundation of particular traits that will serve them well in any situation. The young lady who had once been our student is a stunning example of a process gone right. She earned a bachelors degree in psychology and immediately followed up by working toward a masters degree in clinical counseling. It has taken her almost eight years to reach her goals. In that time she has had to work as well as study. Somehow she understood the need to focus on the prize, often with great sacrifice. She adhered to an unwavering belief that God must always be first, family second and career third. All are important, but always in that order. She values life from birth until death and plans to work in palliative care at a hospital. Somehow she has made her journey appear to be easy, but we know that it was not. She had the same kind of stresses and problems that all humans have. perhaps even more, and yet she was able to overcome them and remain healthy, optimistic and kind. What we wondered gave her the courage and confidence that she must have needed on many different occasions? Why was she able to find joy and success when so many falter and fail?
One hint that she humbly provided was that her core of values guide her along the way, but mostly her faith. Her heart is strong and it is her foundation. She is willing to work, and always determined to make a difference in our society. She is less concerned with grades or scores or rankings, and more inclined toward finding purpose in the things that she wants to do. In other words, she has found a passion for people and good works that motivates her to keep going even when times become difficult.
As we explored many ideas we concurred with her philosophies and noted that as educators we have the power to help our young develop a sense of meaningfulness, but all too often our jobs force us to concentrate on areas that are far less important. We become distracted and fractured and unlikely to have either the time or the energy to encourage each and every one of our students. We want to help them on a deeper basis but know that other demands cause us to fall short. It is frustrating, maddening even. We are in the trenches with society’s most important resource and all too many times we are bombarded with so much bureaucratic minutiae that we have to ignore our own instincts about what is most important in the care and guidance of our young.
I recall a workshop from long ago criticizing the American tendency to teach a vast array of concepts in a shallow manner as opposed to going deeply into a few key concepts. As a mathematics teacher I always felt as though I was in a race to keep up with all of the topics. Too many times I was forced to move ahead even when I sensed that my students had not yet mastered what they needed to know. I wondered why I had to teach them how to create a stem and leaf plot when they lacked an understanding of fractions and decimals. I felt that I was somehow contributing to the slow destruction of their confidence, I wondered if they would one day be telling people that they were not good in math because I had made them feel inadequate by ignoring their need for just a bit more time to master certain ideas.
During my career I worked in a variety of schools. The best of them created situations that allowed our students to feel as though they were members of a caring family. There were adults watching over them and helping them to develop traits that would serve them well in any situation. We taught them to work hard and be nice. We reminded them to remember and appreciate kindnesses. We urged them to leave any place where they wandered in a better state than they had found it. We rewarded character as much as grades. We taught them about wisdom and honor. We joined hands with their parents in the work of caring for them. We showed them how to rise to great expectations even as they stumbled in the process. We encouraged them to demonstrate true grit, helping them to realize that those unwilling to give up will ultimately enjoy great accomplishment and happiness. Mostly we wanted them to know that they were never alone. There would always be someone on whom they might rely.
Dialogues such as the one I enjoyed with my colleagues and a former student are commonplace among teachers. We understand how critical our roles truly are. Educational reform is happening every day in small ways inside the classrooms of the majority of dedicated individuals on whom our future depends. Teachers are changing lives one student at a time, and when they witness the fruit of their labors in the form of an adult who is ready to commence the heavy lifting of important work, they know that their efforts have not been in vain. Such a realization is a teacher’s greatest reward.