Well, it's back to school time, and I've seen Facebook explode with pictures of boys and girls on their way back to school...some kids were smiling, some were still asleep, some apparently ran from the camera, and one just stared blankly at a sad ball of clay on his new desk...I like to think he was sitting there thinking, "I spent all those years in pre-school...we did all those crafts, sang all those songs, and ate all those snacks, and this is the best that public school has to offer me! My own boys started back to school today, and for the first time since they entered what Jack likes to call, "prison for kids," I couldn't take them on their first day...instead, Susan had the pleasure of weaving her way through the crazy first-day-of-school-drop-off-line. You know the line...it's the one where all the experienced parents try to hide their exasperation with all the kindergarten parents who insist on parking in non-parking places...jamming the morning lines. So, I called to talk with the boys after school: Harrison said 5th grade is going to be awesome; Jack said all he did was write all day (can you tell which boy loves school and which one hates organized anything?).
While my boys were navigating their first day back at Weaver Elementary, I was sitting (for far longer than I care to ever be still) through welcome back meetings at JSU. First, there was a university meeting: somehow every employee on campus is supposed to be in one place at the same time on campus, and the meeting typically lasts less than an hour and a half. Then, we trudged across the quad to our college meeting that lasted nearly until noon (obviously the dean should take notes from the president)...at least he knows how I feel about noon being sacred in terms of lunch (if you think I'm hard to deal with regularly...spend a few minutes with the hungry version of me.). Our college meeting concluded with a presentation by students from Childersburg High School; they were there to tell us what they expected of us as faculty. On one hand, I was excited to see them list the things that I think are important in student teacher interactions...basically the things I've always taught my methods students. On the other hand, I was sort of put off by some of the surprised looks on the faces in the room. It was as if these "things" the students were asking us to consider were way too much...You mean I'm supposed to try to relate to you? I'm supposed to have a sense of humor? You want me to smile...and know my subject matter? Frankly, the looks scared me.
For months I've been working on our accreditation documents, trying to prove to our accreditors that we know what we're doing when we prepare future teachers. I have loads of data...more sample assessments than I care to even examine, but today I realized that while accreditation is nice (especially when your job depends on it), what really matters in education...what I think every teacher should know is this: Our job is so much more than the subjects we teach or the methods we use. It's more than the fun and creative...more than the boring and rote. It's more than the clubs we sponsor and the teams we coach. It's more than the projects we require, the experiments we demonstrate, and the assignments we grade. In my opinion, what matters most is that each of us understands this: At some point every year, we will encounter a student who just needs to know that s/he matters. It's that simple. You want them to learn from you? Let them know they matter.
One semester as I was teaching English language arts methods, a student asked me what I remembered most about school...we were sharing the good and bad we'd taken from public and private school. I didn't really stop and think much about my answer, analyzing it as I have today, and I said, "I remember the relationships I had with my teachers...I don't remember all the things we did, but bits and pieces of conversations float around in my mind all the time." I'm the product of a county school system, and I don't mind saying that I had more than my share of tenured place holders. But, I was also fortunate to be in the presence of some of the most caring educators I know. They were a minority in my school, but I found them, and I fed from them. They caused me to realize that teaching would be my profession...not because I loved any one subject more than the other...in fact, some of my teachers did more to foster my hatred of a subject (cough, cough...math) than anything...but because I liked the way they made me feel. Realizing that one person could have such an impact on other people was a pretty powerful revelation to a high school student.
I was blessed to have a handful of people who really made me feel like I mattered when I was younger, but I was also plagued by the belief that I'd never matter to one...nothing I'd ever do would be good enough: I'd pick the wrong sport, have the wrong opinions, walk in a pretty large shadow, choose the wrong college, career, and even the wrong time to get married. All of those things would have done me in had I not had good teachers along the way to insist that I mattered...that what I had to say in class was important...that what I wanted to do with my life was "right" because it's what I wanted to do. Last week I sat and wondered where in the world I'd be had I not had a mother, a few family members, and teachers who told me that I mattered...that conformity was moving in the wrong direction. What a lonely...miserable thought. And, I bet there are more students in our classes feeling exactly that way than we think.
If my students were to flip their question and ask me today what I hope "my" students got and continue to get from my classes, I'd say, "I hope that in the conversations I had with them that they felt like they were important...that they mattered to somebody."
So, this wife of mine (who, by the way, loves me far more than I deserve) and I will do everything we can to raise our boys so that they know they matter. When we say yes...when we encourage them...when we work beside them and for them...even when we have to tell them no, I hope they'll realize it's because they matter. And, I hope that the teachers they have along the way understand just how vitally important it is for kids to know that they are more than just doers of projects, completers of tests, and fillers of desks. If not, I'm sure I'll find a way to let them know...I was not blessed with the art of subtlety.