My Working Definition of a Great Teacher
I frequently think back to a memory of a short dialogue I had with my principal after a particularly difficult day. I was feeling defeated and exhausted about the career choice I had made. I remember saying in an exasperated exhale, “There has got to be a job out there that is easier than this.” My principal responded confidently, “Yes, there are a lot of easier career choices out there, but none that will make this type of an impact.” This very short interaction made me realize why I became a teacher in the first place. I wanted to make an impact, but I had no idea how it was going to happen.
I wasn’t one of those people who thought I was born to be a teacher. I didn’t even think about being a teacher until later in my college career. The challenges I have overcome, the colleagues I have worked beside, and the students that I have gladly met throughout the last 12 years have created a deep seeded definition of what a great I now believe that being a teacher is one of the most substantial, worthwhile, and impactful career choices one can make.
In college, I honestly thought this career choice just meant security, a consistent paycheck (my previous career choice as a Broadway Star was not going to provide me with that). It wasn’t until I met my first grade tutee that I realized teaching was an opportunity. An opportunity to provide security and consistency to a student’s. On one particular tutoring session, my first grader showed up with slippers on her feet and tears running down her dirty face. After sitting in silence for what felt like forever, she started to talk to me about her morning. Her mother had left early for work, leaving her to prepare for school all alone. When she couldn’t locate her school shoes, she went for her nearly decapitated Elmo slippers that were obviously a hand-me-down from many years of hardship. When her friends on the bus noticed her choice of shoes, they proceeded to make fun of her and call her names, which caused the tears to fall. Later in the conversation, she shared with me that she would have skipped school that day, but knew I would be there waiting for her. She was willing to go through all of that drama, hurt and pain to sit with me, to be with me. I can honestly say, I, at that moment in my life, had never known anyone with that kind of grit. That was the moment I realized teaching meant more than my personal security, it was to provide security for so many others.
I recently watched my very first classroom of students graduates from high school. They are impressive; athletes, students, and human beings. At one of the gatherings with them, I was speaking with a few of the gentlemen I had in my class, and they said, “Mrs. S you were the ‘realist’ teacher we have ever had.” After laughing and apologizing for my being so ‘green’ during that school year and not really understanding the true impact I would have on them. They went on to tell me that I should never let that go. That it was in that ‘realness’ that made them feel important and safe. My candidness with them made the classroom a place where they all knew they mattered, it was a safe place for learning and growing, and it was a place where they never had to guess what I was thinking. I knew I wasn’t the greatest teacher, but they confirmed that a teacher is someone who provides a safe, learning environment for the whole child to grow. The desk drawers of peanut butter crackers, granola bars, apples, and graham crackers helped to provide full tummies to students that showed up hungry. Cabinets filled with socks, jeans, and t-shirts made my classroom a safe-haven for those just needing to feel like their peers. Students on our campus were provided backpacks full of nonperishable food items for long weekends and holidays through a fundraising event (5k, 1-mile Fun Run) created by myself and colleagues. These weren’t huge gestures of compassion or expense, but they provided my students with a sense of completeness that they didn’t have before. It provided my students with a sense of safety and community that was missing from the curriculum. This was the impact I wanted to make on these students. I wanted them to know that my job was not just to teach or instruct, but that I was in it for them, that they mattered to me; mind, body, and soul.
The last three years in the classroom, I had the opportunity to help provide my students with a practice that would give them courage, mindfulness and grit. I wanted them to be ready to overcome any obstacle that came their way. I wanted my students to know that any type of failure would not be the end of their story, it would be the beginning. I remember working with a small group of struggling fifth graders. These students were working toward passing their second attempt on the state mandated assessment. Needless to say, they were already feeling defeated, dumb and anxious about their situation. The curriculum was intense, the work was difficult, but the students worked hard because they wanted to learn. Most of all, they wanted someone to believe in them, they wanted to believe they could do it too. That was when I realized that a great teacher was someone who not only provided the information or instruction but a person who believes in them- a champion. I could literally see their self-confidence deflating as the intervention went on. I made a very calculated decision and decided to push the curriculum aside and coach them through their mindset, through mindfulness practices. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset was the game-changer for these kids. I took the time to explain that each one of them had a different map inside their brain that needs a different amount of instruction, repetition and effort before the information was finally clear. Like a muscle, some people just need more time to “lift”. I was able to build their confidence and motivate them to be THEIR very best.
We used the systematic approach to continuous improvement by setting a daily objective, practicing and testing our objective. We sat down and reflected over these assessments, came up with new game plans, and tested the strategies and ourselves. These students overcame their most difficult obstacle- their self-confidence. Great teaching is coaching students; looking at ‘game film’, identifying what went wrong, and making tweaks and motivating them to try again. Not every one of these students passed the test on the second try, but there was a moment when I knew I changed their lives. As I sat with them to discuss their test results, I heard each one speak about how they improved on this test, how they knew that they would pass if given another chance, and not one of them felt defeated. It was a moment in my career that I felt like I had really given these students something truly valuable.
Now, in my current chapter as an instructional coach, I look at some of the best teachers I have ever known. These are the instructors that embody all of my previous definitions of a teacher. The teachers I know come to school each and every day to make a child’s life a little bit more consistent, safe and secure. They coach students through difficult failures and beautiful triumphs. These teachers are champions for their students, campus and community. I can confidently define the teachers I know as magic makers that make an impact and a huge difference not only a child’s world but mine as well.