Contrary to Sean Combs’ claim that “it’s all about the Benjamins,” I would argue that life is all about relationships. As teachers, we have relationships with lots of people in our daily school lives, none more important than with our students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of my success as a teacher is due to the meaningful and lasting relationships I have fostered with my students, certainly much more so than any curriculum I may have imparted to them during our shared time together.
While I only worked as a new teacher mentor for a single year, the two most important pieces of advice I offered those who were just beginning in the classroom–whether fresh out of college or starting a second career–was: 1) be your most authentic self, as kids–especially high school students–recognize phoniness better than most adults; 2) get to really know your students as individual human beings. By taking a genuine interest in them, their journeys up to that point in life, and where they’re headed based on their goals and aspirations, teachers can forge a strong, important bond with that child. As I told my mentees, the rest will always come with time and work itself out provided that they put those two pieces of advice into practice.
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days because of two messages I received almost back to back. Over the years, I have received many nice notes, letters, cards, and emails expressing gratitude for our relationship. And what I’ve learned in the first 15 years in the classroom is that we never know how our words and actions will resonate with our students, which is why I always do my utmost to be an exemplar of a life well lived. I was deeply honored and grateful, then, to receive this short essay on leadership from a graduate of last year’s class who is currently at the United States Naval Academy. While she could have written about virtually anyone and how that person exemplifies leadership, she chose me. Her words were truly humbling:
In my junior year of high school, I was required to take a course known as the Theory of Knowledge. This class was a introspective curriculum which mainly focused on self-reflection and relies heavily on the teacher’s interpretation and dedication to the class. It is in this class that I saw one of the purest forms of leadership within the teacher. Mr H. was new to the program and thus took on a large amount of responsibility in order to enable our success.
I would argue that the majority of my enjoyment within the class stemmed from Mr. H’s ability to spark an intense curiosity and passion within all of his students. It was not through overbearing demands, but rather a nurturing of individual abilities. One of the most important traits that I learned through H was to listen, even when you didn’t always know how to respond. Compassion never fails. The ability to sympathize and lend an ear can often be more powerful than one’s own words. As an especially exasperated high school student, H’s ability to listen to the complaints of fifty teenagers and still make everyone feel like an individual proved unique.
Besides listening, a good leader understands when intervening is necessary. Obviously, the public school system does not stand as the pinnacle of premier education. Unlike most people who just accepted the flaws of a large structure, Mr. H continued to seek new ways to reform and better the environment he was in. From interviewing other teachers on a podcast, to speaking his grievances at school board meetings, H understood the need to take a stand. This determination to better his community at a large scale and still treat people as individuals was contagious. Most often leadership is done first through example.
At the purest form H never stopped showing how much he cared. How much he cared about people, knowledge, work, and life. These traits have greatly impacted how I approach situations, as well as my interactions with others. Through him I saw someone devote themselves to others, which in the end, defines leadership.
Then, only a day later, another former student from my time at Durant tagged me on Twitter to tell me the following:
I responded to him to thank him for his kind words as well as to share that I do indeed remember him. By my rough estimation, I have taught over 3,000 students at this point in my career. I may not be able to remember all of their names (especially those that were from more than a decade ago), but I often recognize their faces despite the years that have passed. Regardless, these small blessings are one of the many, many reasons I love being a teacher.
My wife and I do not have children, and that is a big reason why we truly love our students as if they were our own kids. I believe that love infuses our classroom and the interactions we have with all students, which is why I consider the relationships we build with them so critical for their future success. Being a teacher is an important job, but being good toward other human beings who are sharing this sojourn with us through this space in time, who have been given the same gift of life that has been bestowed upon each of us, is the pinnacle of what it means to teach. Regardless of a student’s grade average or mastery of content, it’s how we treat them with an inherent dignity that will forever resonate with them. As Maya Angelou famously said, “…people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”
Let’s ensure that our students feel loved.
P.S. – And, as always, if you are one of my current or former students reading this, thank you for being a part of my life. All of you mean the world to me.