For 20 years I have spoken to teachers preparing to return to the classroom to teach. Having been a teacher in the classroom for many years myself (and the word “Rabbi” means teacher), here are five messages for teachers as the year begins.
1. Embrace self-renewal. Many people think of stamina as running off of your original charge, like a battery that gradually depletes. But in fact, a marathon is not one long race but a series of short races strung together. You have to re-motivate at various points along the way to make it to the finish line. To be a great teacher, you must be a constant learner. Make a reading list, join a digital professional community, try a new strategy, and build high points into the year to re-excite yourself and therefore your students.
2. Aim for adults. We are not trying to make “good kids.” We are trying to shape thoughtful, ethical adults. Helping students master content is critical, of course. Yet what we teach will ultimately matter less than who we are. As Ted Sizer, an education-reform advocate, liked to say, “They watch us all the time. They listen to us, sometimes.” The teacher’s example is more lasting than any instruction.
3. Be tolerant of misbehavior. Misbehavior arises from spirit as often as from defiance. Some of the most lively and gifted children are those who cannot sit still, consistently focus, or behave the way they are instructed. Taking a tolerant, large view helps avoid the frustration that attributes misbehavior to willfulness alone. You cannot avoid setting limits on behavior, but you can sidestep judgment on character.
4. Understand that impact takes time. You do not know—you may never know—the impact you are having on a student. Every teacher has had the experience of being approached by a student years later who says, “You know, I will never forget when you said to me that I had done well” or some such comment. The teacher may have forgotten—she may not even remember the student. But don’t feel frustrated by lack of immediate response in the classroom. Meaning drops slowly into people’s hearts, and it may take years for the seed to bear fruit.
5. Know you’re following a noble calling. Yes, it is true that society does not pay teachers commensurate with the value we claim to place on teaching. But it is also true that job satisfaction has a very weak connection to the amount of money we make. We are moved by meaning. Everyone wants to know that what they do matters and can make an impact in the world. There nothing is more powerful than a teacher. When the famed Kotzker Rebbe went back to his town as a renowned religious figure, he sought out the man who had taught him the alphabet to thank him. No one, he said, was more influential—what this man taught him was the basis of all he had later accomplished.
A teacher who inspires a student changes the course of a life and in infinite ripples, untold other lives. The classroom is the incubator of the future. Teachers help us realize the dreams we have for our children and enable our children to shape the world they will inherit.
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