If there’s anything I learned this summer, it’s that teaching is really, really hard. Maybe you didn’t believe your teachers when they told you they had chosen a difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting career with low pay and only occasional recognition. Maybe you thought they were pulling your leg. Having lived the teaching life for ten weeks, I can tell you for certain that they were telling the truth. Teaching is really difficult.
In Finland, the teaching profession is held in such high regard that all teachers are required to earn a master’s degree and only one out of every ten applicants successfully lands a job as a teacher. In South Korea, they call teachers “nation-builders.” In Mississippi, you’re lucky to even have a math teacher. Yes, some of my students went all of last year without a math teacher. In this teacher-starved region, when a math teacher calls it quits in September, it can mean that his or her class will go without a qualified replacement for the entire school year.
Needless to say, I have emerged from this summer with a renewed sense of gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had in my life. Teachers never hear this enough and I can never say this enough, but for all my teachers I have one simple message: thank you. You’ve taught me the fundamental skills I use every day. You’ve fostered a love of learning that adds meaning to my life. You’ve shaped and molded my development as a student and as a person. You’ve guided me through moments of personal upheaval and mentored me on the path to achieving my dreams. You’ve had faith in me when I needed it most.
As I took charge of my own classroom this summer, I started to notice something strange. I had thought, perhaps naively, that being a teacher would mean being my own man. But with each passing day, I realized that my teaching was less genesis and more synthesis, less original thinking and more returning to the ways my teachers had taught me. In other words, when it came to teaching, I was “standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In this post, I would like to share what my teachers have done well and how I tried to incorporate what they taught me into my own classroom this summer.
- Miss Robertson – thank you for teaching me how to read and for sparking the love of reading I strove to share with my students.
- Mrs. Mills – thank you for making me run my first mile and for personifying the ideal coach and fitness champion (we ran the mile with our students every Monday).
- Mrs. Brittingham – thank you for designing projects that gave enough leeway for students to experience the joy of discovery and exploration.
- Mrs. Schmid – thank you for showing that a strict, demanding teacher could be a caring and personally invested one too.
- Mrs. Ballinger – thank you for focusing so intently on building up vocabulary (this summer, I’ve seen just how important it is).
- Ms. Faries – thank you for demonstrating the importance of assigning challenging projects and seeing students rise to meet those individualized challenges.
- Ms. Mitchell – thank you for setting incredibly high expectations and logging hours before and after school to make students succeed.
- Mr. Raymond – thank you for communicating with parents and relatives, setting a clear agenda and following through with it, and leading by example in everything you do.
- Mme. Maltby – thank you for showing that games can connect with students in ways that day-to-day instruction cannot (a debate game just about saved my class when my students were really bored).
- Ms. Kenzer – thank you for sharing your contagious sense of civic responsibility with your civics classes and for introducing me to a favorite quote.
- Ms. Beith – thank you for introducing me to the world of figurative language, a world I sought to explore with my students.
- Mr. Lotze – thank you for the time you pulled me aside and urged me to “never do a job half-assed” (I tried to strike a similar tone when confronting students over bad habits this summer).
- Mrs. Starr – thank you for stressing the importance of revising and for introducing me to the James Michener quote on rewriting I found myself repeating to my students as they were finalizing their debate cases.
- Mr. Snow – thank you for livening up your PowerPoints with the occasional pop culture reference or image out of left-field just to keep everyone engaged.
- Ms. Crown-Hodges – thank you for all the enthusiasm you have for public speaking and for introducing me to the practice of saying tongue twisters before speaking (my students LOVED this).
- Mrs. McKeon – thank you for exemplifying duty, even when you just weren’t feeling it (if I managed to summon up an ounce of your sense of duty this summer, I succeeded).
- Mrs. Smith – thank you for your willingness to learn something new and coach it when your students needed it most.
- Mrs. Joyce – thank you for setting up video chats with interesting people to really make the subject matter come alive.
- Mr. Wilkes – thank you for walking the room, employing dramatic vocal dynamics to keep things interesting, and not being afraid to wake up dozing students (I may or may not have startled a few sleeping kids this summer).
- Mr. Ulmschneider – thank you for all those rounds of edits over Google Docs (that’s how the students wrote their cases this summer – a great platform for providing feedback and revising).
- Mr. Brown – thank you for making all my high school debate experiences happen (I would have been a much less effective teacher this summer without Maggie Walker Debate).
- Ms. Parker – thank you for reinforcing the importance of reflection, the reason for this blog.
- Sr. Jenkins – thank you for showing that a hardass teaching persona can achieve real results.
- Dr. Spencer – thank you for challenging me to develop my moral sense in a more intentional way (and for making me think about “human potential” in place of “human capital”).
- Mr. Waller – thank you for encouraging me to give teaching a try. I’m so glad I did.
- Mrs. Boswell – thank you for teaching logical fallacies (words I’m sure you never thought you’d hear a student say).
- Mr. McGuire – thank you for selecting relevant, entertaining videos and responding quickly to emails.
- Mr. Smith – thank you for beginning each day with a firm handshake at the door (this was an important part of our classroom culture this summer).
- Ms. Reed – thank you for passing along stellar handouts on media bias that my students actually used (they pulled them out in the debate rounds to challenge their opponents’ sources!).
- Ms. Burr – thank you for all the planning time you spent picking significant documents and formatting them elegantly (I hope my handouts came close to yours!).
- Mrs. Germer – thank you for running a student-centered classroom, full of joyful learning, every single day.
- Mrs. Williams – thank you for your advice at the beginning of this summer: bring out student voices and incorporate Fannie Lou Hamer into the classroom.
- Mr. Drummond – thank you for your minute-to-minute planning that fostered a sense of urgency, allowing us to make the most out of class time together.
- Mrs. Taylor – thank you for being a master of the pre-performance pep talk.
- Mme. Brown and Mr. Sorrentino – thank you for showing that stern teachers can gradually loosen up without losing the focused classroom atmosphere their hard-driving presence initially fosters.
- Dean Baker – thank you for video conferencing with us and getting our 8th graders (a) inspired to go to college and (b) more prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face along the way.
- Dr. Eric Mlyn – thank you for getting me to think more deeply about the purposes of higher education and for sparking meaningful discussions on the problems and promise of civic engagement and service work.
- Professor Tony Brown – thank you for recommending TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s memoir, excellent reading before this summer.
- Drs. Riggsbee and Malone – thank you for sitting down with me before this summer to share teaching strategies (they sure helped).
- Dr. Feaver – thank you for showing the importance of breaking bread with students outside the classroom and for allowing me to ask guest speakers about their favorite speeches (which our students loved this summer).
- Dr. Balcells – thank you for asking the kind of killer CFUs I tried to emulate this summer.
- Vaish – thank you for fostering an outstanding work environment where I felt valued and motivated every day as a member of a great team.
- Kate – thank you for sharing, day by day, exactly what the LEAD principles look like and what the Freedom Project is all about.
- Sabrina – thank you for always having one ear to the wall when I was teaching and always being ready to lend a helping hand.
- Andrew – thank you for spot-on feedback, especially in the first week when I needed it most.
- Andy – thank you for challenging me to keep thinking about the big picture, the big issues in Mississippi and the entire country.
- Lauren Gilbert – thank you for showing how consequential (and fun) a long-term mentor relationship can be.
- Marc Johnson – thank you for always asking about “takeaways” (my students now know they’re the first thing I ask them to share after a reading).
- Bob Gibson – thank you for showing how successful training of the mind and voice in debate translates into success in the world.
- Delegate Farrell – thank you for showing that dedicated public service can coexist with a hearty laugh and broad smile.
- Charles Staples – thank you for showing that a little well-timed profanity every once and a while can really go a long way.
- Susan and James Edwards – thank you for all the faith you’ve had in me this summer and for sharing your teaching experiences over the years.
- Griffin Unger – thank you for providing loads of individualized advice before I started this summer.
- Mehul Mehta, Jacob Rosenberg, and Joanna Kuang – thank you for conversations over the past year-and-a-half (yes, starting at Finalist Weekend 2014) that persuaded me to aim for the Freedom Project this summer.
- Vicki Stocking – thank you for excellent intuition in my Community Summer placement, responding to late-night texts, and never failing to understand me.
- Tom Allin – thank you for being such a great booster of your home state (I’m so glad I’ve become acquainted with Mississippi).
- Logan Ferrell – thank you for being such a great debate teacher and role model in high school (I found myself channeling those early mornings at the whiteboard this summer).
- Mr. Rogers – thank you for recognizing that all the world’s a stage, and all the teachers merely players (also for letting me work on my teaching chops in your classroom this past year).
- Mom and Dad – thank you for being my first teachers and for sharing your love of learning with me from my first days.