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(At the end of each year, in the urban public high school where I taught mathematics for more than a decade and a half,  we would write our reflections concerning what happened that past year. We always felt stressed out writing these essays, because it came at such a busy time: final papers and tests to grade, graduations to prepare, parents to meet, classrooms to clean; but, in the end, when the entire staff got together in one big circle, and each read his or her reflection to the rest of the staff, it was one of the most powerful, affirming things about the job. When a new principal ended this ritual in the interest of time, I knew the school was headed  downwards . . . Here’s one of those reflections. Looking back, it makes me smile at the guy who took so long to figure out the basics . . .)

 Jack’s Reflection 2003

After several recent rocky years of teaching, including taking a year off because I was so mentally deranged, I’ve come to my best, least stressful, and favorite year of teaching in a career of teaching in many different kinds of situations. I’m not sure I understand why this is. Some of the reasons lie outside of myself and were the result of happy chance: the advisory full of nice warm students, or the classes with the right mix of superstars and struggling but striving students. So, I think I’ve been lucky this year. But I also think there are reasons that lie within me, and perhaps, if I were able to articulate what those reasons are, I can continue to make things better for myself and perhaps pass on some ideas.

Something changed inside me this year: I made a few conscious decisions and a few less conscious decisions, which I have been trying to understand for myself.  I’ll attempt to lay out some of what I think I’ve figured out this year.

First the conscious decisions: I learned from Kathy [my math teaching partner] that 80% of this job, in this school, with this student population, is selling and cheerleading. I used to think this was beneath me, and besides I probably wouldn’t be very good at it. It turns out I’m pretty good at it, and it does make a difference, a huge difference, in student involvement and engagement. When planning a lesson now I spend three quarters of my time asking myself “How am I going to first engage these students in front of me in the lesson of the day? What’s the hook—what can I do to make them want to hear the story I’m about to tell?” At this point in my teaching career I don’t worry much about the rest of the lesson, I’ve been doing this a long time and it comes out automatically. But if I’ve figured out what the grabber is, then the lesson generally goes well.

The second conscious decision I made was to have fun. It became clear to me if I was bored by a lesson, or if I dreaded teaching a lesson then my students must really be bored. So, if I work to entertain myself, I’ll be entertaining the students too and create a better atmosphere in the class.

These two decisions I realize now were a groping to what I now realize is the basic principle that in teaching and learning everything depends on the student and teacher being in the correct relationship with each other in the correct environment. Gordon [our meditation–sitting History teacher] would say this is a Buddhist realization. This environment is the emotional tone of the relationship, and without a correct emotional tone very little is possible. It is the teacher’s job, perhaps the most important part of the job, to help create that tone.

The key to creating this environment is a basic principle that I was not able to verbalize until I listened to Laura [science teacher] at the Christmas party. She told me how her mentor was giving her feed back on her teaching. Her mentor told her a very interesting thing: you’re a very good teacher and have loads of promise, but your problem right now is that you love your subject too much. More specifically, you love your subject more than you love your students.

As soon as Laura said this to me, a bell went off inside me. This is what I was trying to express to myself, this is the understanding that I had been working toward. Love your subject, yes, but love your students more. This brought to mind two things that I had heard around the same time from Keri [a ninth-grade math teacher] and Harry [a ninth-grade English teacher.] Keri said that it was sometimes more important that her students knew she cared about them than that they knew how to find the slope of a line. In fact, it was that knowledge of caring that allowed them to want to find the slope of a line. And then at a different time, Harry said that in some sense our job is to find something to like even in the most unlikeable student.

So it all begins with the personal relationship with the individual student. Even when we get angry with a student we need to reassure them that we like them, that we’re still there for them. I watched Amy [the school social worker] work with some of our toughest students, and was always amazed with the trust with which they would respond to her. And I noticed that even when she had the harshest things to say to a student she always did it with a smile. Now this is because she’s a nice person but this can work even with those of us like me who aren’t so nice. So, now I smile when a kid makes me mad and I learn to pick my battles. It’s just a simple fact: anger is not a very efficient way of maintaining communication with a student. So now I smile and smile. You can get away with anything.

This semester I tried consciously to actively communicate to each student that I am more interested in them as full, interesting, lively human beings than as receptacles for learning my subject. I purposely ask students in my class on the side how they’re doing in their other subjects, and how their parents are doing. In a sense, I’m trying to say to them I see you. At the same time, I think it is important for students to see me too—and I try to show them that there are other sides of myself than just the teacher. It’s important for teenagers to know that you don’t have to give up your individuality to become successful in the world of adult work.

I guess it sounds like I haven’t talked much about actual teaching. I mean what does this all have to do with students learning the quadratic formula? Don’t kids just need to buckle down more and do more work and improve their skills and get smarter? Yes, of course. But what I am suggesting here is that our students are already pretty smart. What’s stopping them from learning is often not an academic issue but a social issue.

Rereading this I realize that this is getting pretty serious and I don’t mean for it to sound like a term paper but I just want to throw out a few more ideas:

1) The most successful people as adults were not necessarily A students in school. Keep this in mind before you get too exasperated with any particular teenager.

2) It helps to have a realistic definition of success and failure in this job: if a student goes from an F to a D, or a D to a C, that’s a success! Congratulations! Because a student didn’t move from an F to an A, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

3) Students consistently rate the most important quality of a teacher as fairness. Keeping your records straight and giving students frequent feedback as to how they’re doing really helps create trust.

4) For God’s sake, make it interesting for yourself. Use your power in interesting ways.