On the first day of my teaching career, I met a group of sixth graders who would give me my first master class on teaching. Caleb was one of those students: huge smile, artistic genius, winsome character. Caleb, his peers, and I were all new that year to Woodlawn Middle School in Baltimore, MD.
What you have to realize is that, on that day in August of 2006, I was all ideas, most of them untested and derived less from academic literature than from teachers who inspired me at the time, people like Rafe Esquith and Ron Clark. And so, as I bumbled through the scripted, remedial reading program I was brought on to teach, my students were working hard on their own student and curriculum.
Here were their objectives for me, whether they knew them or not:
- The teacher will (TTW) learn that if he is to become a great teacher, he can only learn so much from teacher books before he has to put his head down and do the work of discovering his unique calling. The only great teacher he can become is the teacher who is uniquely, authentically him. His work can be informed by people like Esquith and Clark, but it can never become them.
- TTW realize that he does not have all the answers, and that he’ll need community if he’s going to do anything worthwhile in his career.
- TTW come to conceive of his work more as the promotion of long-term student flourishing and less as the getting through the scripted curriculum.
What huge objectives for such tiny souls — or at least, tiny hands. I wasn’t even certified to teach sixth grade, so imagine my wonder when I greeted those brand new sixth graders at the door, how small some of their hands were — Rashad’s, Taylor’s — as I shook them, and how transparently window-like their eyes appeared, giving full view to the nervousness that attends one’s first day of middle school.
I. “Kids Eat Free”: the student-centered work
About three weeks into the school year, it was Parent Open House night. By that time, I was solidly floundering. My classroom management “strategy” was a mirror image of Ron Clark’s 55 rules (not a typo, that number). Only three weeks in, Caleb and a few of his peers had discovered a passion (yay!), but it wasn’t for English (nay) — it was for exploring the many ways in which they could break a rule in Mr. Stuart’s class. Never before had school so activated their creativity.
I can remember when Naddyia’s parents approached me on that Open House night. I don’t know if they had heard from Naddyia about my teaching or if they were just following a hunch, but they walked up to me and offered a suggestion.
“At the nearby Old Country Buffet,” they said, “every Tuesday is ‘Kids Eat Free’ night. Why not take a group of kids there every Tuesday?”
I went home that evening, looked at the Ron Clark book sitting on my night stand, and, instead of reading some Ron, I shot a quick email to my principal, Mr. Scriven, about this Old Country Buffett idea Naddyia’s parents had given me.
Change over time
Within a week, I had my principal’s approval, a set of signed permission slips, and four kids in my car on our first-ever OCB trip. Caleb was among them. It ended up being a hit with the kids and kind to my wallet; I kept doing it. I took every kid on my roster at least once during that first year, and did the same thing my second year (when I taught seventh grade) and my third year (when I taught eighth). The kids eventually aged out of the ‘Kids Eat Free’ promotion, but it was worth the expense. A full-on mentoring program was born when, over those three years, two colleagues of mine — Shannon and Bob — brought their energy and fire. There were some nights when we had 12 kids at the restaurant.
Over those three years, so much changed in me: my approaches to teaching, to classroom management, to work-life balance (thank you, Crystal Stuart), to depending on others. Those TTW objectives seemed on the brink of being met some days, and on other days it was like they didn’t exist. My kids were stalwart; they kept teaching me, even as their bodies and minds changed during the hormonally-infused years of middle school.
Kids’ addresses changed, too. Caleb moved to another part of the city, so he couldn’t attend Woodlawn for eighth grade. I would occasionally pick him up from his new school on the weekly restaurant trips; Woodlawn kids always loved re-connecting with Caleb, as did I. But that was a hard year for him; he wasn’t the plucky sixth grader he once was, and both his life and his heart seemed to get harder in the intervals between each meeting. I could sense a growing anger in Caleb, and a growing distance developed in our mentoring relationship. By the time that eighth grade year ended, I was pretty sure that three years of modest investment into Caleb hadn’t done much good.
But by then, I was learning that results aren’t guaranteed. It’s just the work and the praying and the seeing how things come out. Part of the work was getting better and better at teaching, for the sake of students.
For the sake of students, right?
II. “Flee recognition”: the me-centered heart
When one of your top reasons for becoming a teacher is that you hope to make an impact on kids’ lives, there’s a major heart struggle that needs working out.
On the one hand, you do genuinely want to help your students flourish, both now and for the long term, for their sake; at the same time, you unconsciously want to help them for your sake. Nobody teaches you this.
You, at an identity level, need them to flourish, you need them to do well, so that you feel like you’re okay; you need validation for the time and money and commitment that goes into your work; you need affirmation for choosing a profession that many view as “nice” but fewer and fewer view as noble.
And — here’s where it gets tricky — since long-term flourishing is so hard to measure, so “one size fits one,” so “I’ll know in twenty years whether I was a great teacher to this year’s students,” we tend to look for external affirmation as a substitute “I’m Okay” sticker.
Affirmation becomes an addiction. We start pulling jerk moves to get it. We become Those Teachers who listen autobiographically, deflating your excitement over something that your students did by quickly sharing something cool that our students did. (And oh, aren’t we being humble because we’re all talking about something our students did?)
I can remember sitting in a department meeting, lost in a fantasy where I was essentially the protagonist in another Hollywood teacher film. I started sensing the wrong-centeredness of my daydream and, not liking where my heart was heading, I literally wrote “FLEE RECOGNITION” on the back of my teacher notebook where no one could see it. I retraced the words throughout the school year when I felt myself slipping into “Dave the Hero” fantasy land. I resolved to continue working hard and aiming high while at the same time resisting the desire to tell people about it and to be known for it.
Success ≠ Recognition
This past year was one of testing, as it is by far the most
successful recognized year of my life. In July my M.Ed alma mater decided I was the guy for their Alumni Achievement award. In September my first book, A Non-Freaked Out Guide to Teaching the Common Core, was released. In April I received a National Teacher Innovator Grant from Character Lab. In May I was recognized as one of five finalists for the Michigan Teacher of the Year (congratulations to Rick Joseph, the new MTOY).
And at so many points I felt like I was losing that teacher from 2006 in Baltimore, that teacher who believed that scratching principles on notebooks made it more likely that you’d become the person you wanted to be. I knew, in the midst of the great honors of this past year, that I was still the teacher whose instruction is prone to failure, whose skills grow less than they should, whose impact doesn’t penetrate dark seasons like Caleb’s eighth grade year.
But part of teaching’s pay is that it shapes our characters if we’ll let it.
Yet road to character is long. You don’t arrive at Conquest of Inner Selfishness and Moratorium on Mixed Motivations in a year or two. You’re driving there for a lifetime until the car wears out, and even then, at life’s end, you’ve only started in the arriving at the country called Character.
III. One day, two awards
A few weeks ago, I drove to our state’s capitol with my wife and father-in-law. I was visiting Lansing for an event that, for most of it, felt like some weird out-of-body experience. At the State Board of Ed meeting that morning, I found myself standing with four exceptionally talented and impactful educators. We received certificates, pins, and a few kind words for being Michigan Teacher of the Year finalists. The people standing next to me had created nationally-replicated programs, started life-changing initiatives, and yielded 99% pass rates on AP tests. I was some dude with a blog.
That evening, I happened to be in a hotel room in east central Illinois — the next day I had a keynote gig with some fine folks at Eastern Illinois University. I was going through the night-before-a-gig ritual of ironing the next day’s clothes and, as I was sitting there, thinking back on the morning and its “who would have ever thought”-edness, my phone rang. It was an unknown number from Tennessee.
I picked it up.
“Mr. Stuart? It’s Caleb. You know, Caleb from–”
“Baltimore!? Of course, Caleb — how in the world have you been?”
“Well Mr. Stuart, real good. I’m in Tennessee now, going to school. I’ve got a car and a job. I’m teaching Vacation Bible School at a church. So yeah, I’m doing real good.”
“Wow, Caleb — wow. I mean, I don’t know what to say. I remember how hard you were having it before I left Baltimore, how rough things were going. I felt like I wasn’t doing you much good, as your teacher.”
“Well, Mr. Stuart, that’s part of why I called. I hate to burst your bubble, but you made a major impact on me. You helped me out.”
We kept chatting. A few moments later when I hung up the phone, I’ll be honest: I just sat down.
It was like the morning in Lansing had been hand-crafted to tell me, “Dave, do you see this? This is not why you do what you do. This is just a little zazzle; enjoy it, accept it, and move on. Don’t drink the perfume, but don’t be afraid to smell it.”
And then the evening phone call, in turn, seemed to say, “Dave, do you see that? Even with the kids you feel like you failed, there’s possibility. Planted seeds are powerful things; grasses grow from the clefts of rocks. Do not underestimate the power of the sustained work of a teacher.”
IV. Conclusion: why we teach
We can’t teach for the Caleb phone calls any more than we can teach for the trips to Lansing.
Affirmation, in whatever form, can’t provide the fuel it takes to power a teaching career that ripples. All we can teach for is Caleb himself, both Caleb the Sixth Grader and Caleb the Adult, the latter of whom we hope we’ve helped equip for the climb of his Everest when he eventually defines it. This long term vision informs everything we do; it is our Everest, and we keep it ever in our sights whether planning literacy instruction or building relationships or driving groups of kids to eat at Old Country Buffet.
As we work, we search out our unconscious motives, the tumors of heart that lie beneath our jealousies and frustrations and anxious nights. We teach students about life and English, about their brains and mathematics, about their bodies and basketball, about human relationships and the foundations of science; we let teaching teach us about the very personal, very real human condition. We resist the urge to compare our selves to other teachers even as we compare our data because we know this is a job of abundance, despite policies built on notions of scarcity.
We do all these things because this, teaching, is our good and noble work. We do it because from our first lesson to our last, we’re a part of something bigger than us or our time.
I pray you a have restful, rewarding summer, however that looks. Let’s talk again in August.