I often find myself awake in the early morning hours in front of a flickering screen searching for words to describe how I feel about micro-conversations in which we share, chat, discuss, and, with some predictability, argue about all things education on Twitter. Finding words is usually pretty easy for me. Getting them to stick to a page is quite a bit harder.
Recently, in a room full of kindergarteners, I remembered words – not new words, not 21st century words, not ed-jargon words – but simply the words of the person who helped me understand that nothing holds more power than the voice of an educator who remembered across his own career that we are first teachers, no matter our position. Despite the premature loss of my first mentor, I still return to his words when the weight of this profession sits heavy.
Those of us in the tweet world are, in 140 characters or less, at any given moment political, social, educational, and emotional bedfellows, living in word-based relationships that occasionally verge on divorce or fickle love over the turn of a phrase that offends or reinforces. We bridge distance and time in a real-virtual world that sometimes draws me into a fleeting thought about the philosophical conundrum of materialism-dualism in our world. But then, I am pulled back to consider the issues of teacher quality, standardized testing, performance pay, grading scales, tenure, NCLB waivers and the like … back to a place where, sometimes, I worry that I allow words inside the tweet world to create an identical magnitude of earthquake out of every issue in my stream.
That’s when I ask myself, “Of all the things I can choose to spend time on and care about, what’s most important to the learners and educators I serve?”
And it is that question which has led over this winter break back to my first mentor and a bond that began on the first day of my teaching career and ended just four years ago when I was tapped to speak the eulogy voice of educators he had touched. He was a champion of the powerless, a fierce voice of passion on behalf of our profession, and a mentor who cut to the heart of what it means to be a leader, a teacher, and a learner. He might have been a TFAer if growing up today, but instead he entered the Peace Corps after his Ivy League school graduation; then dedicated a life to our profession. He taught me long ago to never give up on the hope our profession offers; and what I learned from him still helps me see beyond our issues, divides, and the current crises of my educational heart.
Lesson I: You the leader set the tone for the culture in the school. Build and model a culture of learning, not punishment, for adults and the children you serve.
How can you create chaos in the first ten minutes of your teaching career? On my first day, I did just that. All you have to do is pull a snake out of a pillow case in a roomful of seventh graders, and say something like, “he won’t bite..”, then stand there with a black rat snake’s sharp teeth embedded in your hand, blood dripping to the floor.
With kids screaming, standing on tables and chairs, I knew in my heart “this will be my first and last day as a teacher.” Then the principal opened the door, never saying a word as I attempted to regain crowd control, and waited just long enough to know I was okay. It was my first teachable moment with this mentor. I said to him later that day when we talked, “I thought you were going to fire me.” His response, “and how would that help you teach?” I laughed, he smiled, and in that moment we together launched my career in education.
Lesson II: Keep your door unconditionally open and be available to the people you serve. Relish the opportunity to help them find solutions to problems. In doing so, you both become part of the solution and not the problem.
He was the eternal optimist and where some people saw problems as rocks that could not be moved or surmounted, this mentor worked like water flowing in a river; always finding pathways over, under and around problems. There have been many times over the years when I knocked on his door, picked up the phone and called, or emailed after our pathways diverged. I still can hear his voice even now, a caring, but confronting, voice which did not brook escape from responsibility:
“So, are you going to spend your time admiring the problem or actually solve it?… Do you just want to ‘awfulize’ about this, or work it out? … You might as well spend your time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless you are willing to really do something about this problem.”
Or, I might hear his favorite comment on who really owned the problem, “Pam, you can bring your monkey into my office – and I will pet your monkey – I will even feed your monkey, but when you leave – you need to take your monkey with you.”
Lesson III: Determination comes from inside people. It’s what keeps young people learning when adults move out of their space. It’s what moves adults to remain open to trying new ways of reaching a young person disconnected from learning. It emerges from passion, inspiration, and joy, the product of both hard work and serious play.
When he died, people wrote what became pages of stories and quotes remembered from their own experiences with my first mentor. In sharing those at his memorial service, we realized together that we all belonged to him as learners and him to us as teacher. It was a powerful moment to realize that we all had been gifted individually and collectively with the opportunity to grow careers grounded through his compassion and love for life and learning. We all paused that day for a moment of gratitude, past due.
“Our children are still developing into adults, they make mistakes, and our job is to make sure they learn from them and are not defeated by them.”
“Make decisions based on what is best for children, no matter what.”
This mentor, a master weaver, created a fabric of influential professional voices over time; facilitating many of us who worked with him to find our teaching voice, our leadership voice, and our personal voice in the service of young people. He articulated a powerful vision that all children (and educators) will learn, given enough time. He taught us that what’s important to learn transcends that which is simply rote, and, we must walk the walk of commitment to creating rich learning options for every child we serve. Every day he modeled unswerving passion for and gratitude to our profession; a lifelong choice for a man whose brilliance and resources allowed him the option of pursuing any career. In many ways, he was a leader before his time.
These lessons that I learned from him still frame the compelling work of teaching, learning, and leading and define a profession that must be about culture, people, and determination rather than issues that others outside the profession have defined for us. His words have evolved into my own words to share with a younger generation of educators and with colleagues who sometimes need to hear their work is important, valued, and that failure while sometimes painful is an important part of our own learning.
The kindergarteners with whom I’ve spent time over the years surprise and delight me with their enthusiasm for all things learning, seeing themselves as growing up to become scientists, Olympic swimmers, artists, paleontologists, builders and, yes, even teachers. They are fearless in their pursuit of learning. When I think about all the “earthquake” twitter issues of seemingly great magnitude, it’s the kindergarteners who remind me of what’s most important in our work.
Tonight I am grateful in the screen-lit dark for five-year-olds who remind me of my mentor’s learning lessons for a lifetime, the most important of which is to make sure our young people leave us with a lifelong love of learning, a sense of belonging, and value for others, regardless of differences.