“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” —William A. Ward
Throughout my childhood, I had teachers I connected with in a way I will never forget, while others have faded in my memories. As an adult, I’ve seen the same phenomenon: some teachers have an incredible talent for inspiring even the most unreachable student. What is the extra “something” those teachers possess? I think I’ve finally figured it out.
It sounds a bit cliche’, but it is the one common thread I see in all teachers who have a knack for bringing out the best in students. Teachers’ plates and minds are overflowing today, and teaching with presence requires putting everything else aside to really know each student. This is an epic task, yet some teachers make it look simple. Maybe if I explain this with an example, you’ll see it as I see it.
Fifth grade was a turning point in my life. I entered as a dorky, insecure 10-year-old girl. My ultimate daily school goal was blending into the background, and it became a talent of mine. Then Mrs. Hooper came into my life. She made it clear: being a wallflower was no longer an option. She engaged me in conversation, and when I spoke she was fiercely present. She personalized my learning experience that year in a way that changed me. How? She listened, even when I was silent. She showed me how to discover books that hooked me into reading. She helped me find my voice as a writer. She made it evident I really wasn’t bad at math. She cultivated the “me” underneath all the armor. The next year, I ran for Student Council President and won.
So as a coach, my first instinct is to wonder, “How do we recreate this?” Ask any educator, and they’ll tell you they chose their career path to make a difference. All right, the summers off don’t hurt either. We also all know that in order to make a true difference, it’s imperative we engage students by personalizing their learning experience in our classroom. But how, in this day and age, does one do that? Student-to-teacher ratios are immense. The content is expansive and rigorous. Student ability levels span substantially. I’ve seen it done, though, so I know it’s possible. My mind automatically takes me back into a classroom I know well. Coincidentally, it’s fifth grade again, and it’s the teacher I most admire. Yes, even more than Mrs. Hooper. Her name is Kelly, and I treasure my years as her teaching partner.
Let me try to paint a picture of her classroom for you. The room buzzes with activity, the chaos of 32 students somehow all flowing purposefully throughout the space. The energy is palpable, contagious, even. Artifacts of learning adorn the room. The Promethean Board serves as a beacon with a carefully crafted roadmap pointing each student down a unique learning pathway. The teacher is … nowhere to be found. Wait … what? Oh, there she is: on the floor engaging a small group of students circled around her. The rest of the room’s learners ebb and flow around them. Some are on devices, others not. Some band together in groups around collaborative tasks. Others individually tackle their own specific learning goals. Pairs of learners utilize each other’s strengths to gain new understandings. These students are engaged in unique, meaningful tasks tailored to their needs. It’s obvious: Kelly knows each child in that room in a way that takes my breath away. I know these students have hit the teacher lottery.
I’ve had years of lingering conversations with Kelly about teaching and learning, and one thing remains constant. Her passion for meeting her students’ needs fills every nook and cranny of her thoughts. She is driven to uncover all of the idiosyncrasies of each child blessed to be in her room.
She teaches with presence.
I’ve learned remarkable lessons from my two favorite fifth-grade teachers. I tried my best to emulate those talents throughout my many years as a classroom teacher, and I hope I passed some of the inspiration along to the teachers I’ve had the pleasure of coaching over the past few years. I’m guessing neither Kelly nor Mrs. Hooper know the extent of the impact they’ve had on me. As a matter of fact, they’ve been cheering me on in my mind as I’ve taken the biggest leap of faith in my career as an educator. I’ve left the comfort of an incredible coaching role in an innovative school district I’ve been a part of for 19 years to join the MyBlend team. It’s exciting and terrifying knowing my biggest opportunity to pay it forward is now in front of me.