One of the things that I admire most about our profession is that teachers deliver day after day in an environment where they have to be always at the top of their game. The consequences of their actions and words are always impactful and they literally have the ability to change the lives of their students.
I loved sports and in high school I quickly became the prototypical gym rat. I got up early and got to school when it opened, often asking the janitor to turn on the gym lights so I could shoot some hoops. The trouble was that I really wasn’t that good. My initial technique was to throw the ball in a two-handed overhead motion toward the hoop (picture a soccer throw in). I didn’t know any better, but I practiced so much that I actually got pretty good at it.
The right kind of difference came one morning when one of our PE teachers approached me in the gym. I had come to know him a bit as both a teacher and coach and he would always say hello to me in the morning when he got in. On this particular morning, he approached me and said something like: “Listen, I see you in here every morning shooting hoops, and you’re driving me crazy. You’re not even doing it right. I need to show you how to do this.”
From there, he took the time to show me the correct shooting technique – bend the knees, set ball in the right hand, bend the elbow, push upward as you rise with your legs, release with a bit of backspin, and finish with the wrist. I would imagine the whole exchange took less than five minutes, but it was all I needed. I would like to say I went on to become a high school basketball star, but I didn’t. I did manage to play on our teams, but I did grow into a really good shooter, and it made playing the game a lot more fun. I still remember that exchange, and remain thankful for the time that my PE teacher took with me.
Much like basketball, I had a similar academic profile. I was no report card all-star, but I did ok. I worked hard and knew the content of what we were learning about in class. When I was in high school in Ontario they had just eliminated the mandatory grade 13 year. In the transition, students who required upgrades or OACs (Ontario Academic Credits) to attend University, often needed to come back for an informal “grade 13” year. As a result, if you were in an OAC class, you were there because you had sights on University.
Much like it is now, University acceptance was a competitive game. You needed good to great marks. Like me, many students scanned the course options and looked for those courses that could get you the grades you needed, but also offset the intense rigor of core courses like Language Arts, Mathematics, or Sciences. Courses like drama and fine arts were fun and easily favourites of many of my fellow students. A new course, Art History and Appreciation, appeared among the selections and I decided to give that one a shot.
This Art History teacher was a long-serving staff member at the school - late 40s or 50s, short, stalky, and bald. He was a serious teacher who taught the most difficult math courses in the school almost exclusively. He was passionate about the subject matter, and expected a lot of his students. I had heard he was very strict and was notorious for assigning homework and holding students accountable. He always wore the stereotypical sport coat with the elbow patches, and would wear his glasses low on his nose. He could hold a stare that could do his talking for him, and it was icy. In short, he was the most intense teacher I would ever know. To say I was intimidated walking into the class would be an understatement.
The wrong kind of difference came on the first day of Art History. The students filed into the room, every one of us glancing around the room to see which of our friends were there. Mine were not. In fact, most of the kids in the class were what I would call our school’s academic elite who had come to love this particular teacher during the math classes they had with him.
The first five minutes of Art History class were the usual introduction and syllabus review. I think I was the only one in the class who had not had this teacher in any other class. The teacher then asked “who here is looking to go on to University next year?” and, since it was an OAC class, every single student put up their hand. The teacher scanned the crowd with his icy glare and his eyes locked on me…
“Fero, you’re looking at going on to University?”
How could I possibly respond to that? Normally I would have probably dropped a quick and witty one-liner, but this was not the room for that. It was all I could do to breathe. I went through five different emotions in about 10 seconds – anxiousness, fear, embarrassment, sadness, and anger. I settled on anger. I think about this exchange from time to time.
In the decades since that day I have entertained many ideas, including getting in contact with this teacher. I guess I just wanted him to know the impact he had on me in that moment and how it’s shaped my own career as a teacher. I had a romantic vision of this conversation, which would end up with me forgiving him.
This, however, is a reconciliation that doesn’t need to happen. I’ve been able to forgive the teacher for his misstep, because I know it happens. It’s unfortunate, but in the life of a teaching career – number of days taught, number of interactions in a day - I’m sure he had no idea at the time, no memory, and no need for forgiveness. Time heals, and I've learned other lessons.
I am sure that there are many students out there, like me, that are may be hanging on to something from school. It’s this realization that makes me aware of the impact that my actions and words have on the students that I interact with. Toward this end, here are some simple rules that allow me to make the right kind of difference:
On any given day, a teacher can be my former PE teacher, or my former Art History teacher. Always be aware of the influence you have over young lives. What might seem like an insignificant moment, or a fleeting comment can be the ones that matter most. Memories of these moments, positive or negative, can last a lifetime.
Thanks for reading. My hope is that this week's blog post might spark a memory of a teacher who made the right (or wrong) kind of difference for you. If you would like to share your story, please leave a comment. You can also message me on Twitter via @PrincipalFero or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can post your comments for you if that's easier.
I look forward to the start of each and every school year.
It’s August, but I’ve been thinking about the new school year since the third week of July when I woke up from my self-induced coma.
Yeah, I should probably be off enjoying my summer vacation, but I’m heading in to work anyhow. Which excuse will I tell myself today to justify working when I don’t have to?
I like it when no one else is in the school. It’s all clean and quiet and I work best like this. Leave the kids with grandma for a while so I can have some time to myself.
I convince myself that I am just committed to the profession, but I NEED this. I need to have some internal conversation. How do I arrange my classroom furniture this year? Where will the student supplies go? The conversations are cathartic and all very necessary.
I’m taking the next few days off to think about things. Yep, just needed that one day…
Back in. That one day wasn’t enough. I painstakingly consider, reconsider and overthink everything. Move things and then move them all again. Over and over. I have spent hours deciding on the big things and the little things. It’s a process, and one I have to go through on my own. Soon, after many hours, everything is in order.
Take a few days more days off…
Back in. I love my teaching team. We’ve planned together and know what we need to do to get these kiddos where they need to go. Many more hours invested, but well worth it. I feel better than ever about our plan for the year. Did I mention that I love my teaching team?
First day. New outfit. Looking good. Feeling good.
The classroom is ready. Can't wait to meet my new students.
Actually, am I?
That clock is moving way too quickly. Supervision will start soon.
Time for one last, lonely moment.
Hard work done. Everything in the right place.
You got this.
Best. Year. Ever.
And it begins.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.