I am writing this to you because I have been in the education business for almost two decades and have been around the block, so to speak, in terms of teaching experience. I’m also a parent, so I have the added bonus of seeing education outside the limited lens of my classroom and in the larger, more realistic, view from my dining room table. I know the direct repercussions of too much homework, or inane projects. I see the tears and the triumphs of your day each afternoon when my child unpacks her bag and starts her work.
As a teacher, I know what it means when the year is winding down and I need to finish my curriculum. I know that crunch time before vacation when I need to pile up the homework and make some headway. As a parent, though, I know that homework over vacation means schoolwork when I want my kids available for the limited hours we get to have as a family.
So I’ve walked that fine line. I know what it means on both sides.
My children have had teachers that have inspired them. They have been motivated and given the tools to go on to higher education. They have had teachers who have opened up worlds to them – in books, in science, in math. I’m writing you this letter, though, because you have somehow missed something in your education. Something slipped past the professor who was supposed to teach you classroom methodology. You graduated and you got your degree and I am sure you have read books upon books dealing with classroom management and differentiated instruction and other catch-phrases of educational jargon.
But someone needs to tell you the straight-up truth about teaching. And I have taken it upon myself to point out a few things you need to know for the future. Things I have learned over the years.
You are the attitude and atmosphere in your classroom at all times. But discipline does not need to be angry. Maintaining control in a classroom does not require stern looks and threatening postures. Smiling does not mean that your students will take advantage of you. On the contrary, they will learn the value of a positive attitude. They will trust you. They will feel safe with you. You can balance your authority with love and you will find that your students will flourish.
They are with you for hours at a time. Make it a point to smile at each one. Sincerely.
You can also be flexible. I have taught 17 year old students who have had their computers crash on them or who had showed me remnants of papers that had been run over in their driveways. And even though I don’t accept late papers, each case is different and there is a time for compassion and a time to be intractable. You need to know the difference between a student that takes advantage and a student who needs a break. You should have rules. You should have high expectations. But you also need to balance those rules with the realities of life. A wise teacher knows the difference between compassion and weakness and knows when to bend.
You need to also know that one year in the life of a child is enormous. To you, nothing changes – you finish your year, start again, open your books, recite your lessons. But to the students who are in your classroom, that year is a major part of their development. You are the one they will remember when they speak to their own children about school. What story will you be? The one about the the worst teacher or the best? Every day you create that memory for them. Decide who you want to be.
Your students have parents who love them. Who trust you with them for an entire day. You may have students who bother you, who have messy hair or unkempt clothes. Maybe a kid that has a disorganized backpack. You might have a student who has an annoying habit.
That student is someone’s entire life.
Always keep that in mind. Because any disparaging comment that you make about that child – while chatting in the hallway or walking into the classroom – might be overheard. And in that one second, you have destroyed her, in ways you cannot even fathom. And for a parent, that is unforgivable. It is your job to keep her safe from the mean kids. You can’t become one. Even in private. Because you think that the students don’t know, but they do.
Dear teacher, your job is to teach. But in those few hours, there is so much more that you are responsible for than just your curriculum. The way you teach fractions is so much more vital than the content of your lessons. The way you return homework is so much more educational than the red pen marks across the page. The way in which you carry yourself each day in front of that class will define your success and the success of your students.
Because, dear teacher, your professor no doubt forgot to tell you that happy students learn better than fearful students. Your class may be lined up in rows, and your students may be marching in lines and raising their hands, but if they are not smiling in your room, then you have failed.
And then you are not a teacher.