One year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” which went viral the second month after I published it. Since then, it has been the single most-read item on my blog with hundreds of views each day and over 2 million views to date. In particular, at key times of the year (August, September and mid-way through the year), it will spike an interest again with the teaching public, with tens of thousands of views on certain days.
I have been perplexed by this phenomenon over the past year because I am really at a loss for why this particular blog post has struck such a chord. And then I happened upon these two articles tonight. One, about why teachers feel so bad most of the time and the other, a test to take so as to determine whether or not you are a bad teacher, both written by Ellie Herman (a former teacher). It got me thinking about teachers again- and why teaching matters.
I don’t want to focus solely on the content of either article so as to critique. But I do want to point out one thing that I think explains the interest in my blog post that went viral: that is, why it continues to be read by teachers one year later. And I think the answer lies in part within Herman’s two blog posts. According to Herman, teachers are inadequately trained for the classroom realities they face, get little to no support to deal with those realities, and don’t have the resources to do the job well. Add to this, the reality that many teachers (both those who are essentially good teachers as well as those who should never have entered the profession- due to Herman’s five criteria) have given up because the odds are stacked against them.
It is a tough gig being a teacher.
Ironically, when I wrote the article about teachers fourteen months ago, I had no intentions of publishing the letter. It was actually written concerning a real person involved in a real interaction with me, an actual event; so that scenario I portrayed in the letter was between two real-life colleagues. I had an actual conversation with someone and sent them the letter because I cared about them as a teacher, and I wrote the letter because I wanted to somehow encourage that person in the very same ways I sometimes need encouragement. More than anything, I wanted to care for the person I was interacting with as a colleague, so as to remind them that I believed in them and that I knew they were doing a better job than they were giving themselves credit for.
I think teachers need this type of encouragement so as to be reminded of how well they are doing. And it takes sometimes a moment for us to remember to do this for one another- spurring each other on so that we stay the course. That was one reason I wrote the letter- as a means of inspiration. But even more than this, I wanted to also relay another message- one that has been felt in more general ways by teachers the world over. That message was this: teachers, you are doing a far better job than you give yourselves credit- so believe in yourselves and the influence you have on your students. You are good teachers. Teachers, we are all better than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
Something I have heard said about students from both the administration level as well as from our provincial teaching federation (P.E.I.T.F.) president is the following: students bring their best selves with them each day to school. It might not be what WE would deem best- but the reality is, it is THEIR best for that particular day. I have had conversations with administration as well about parents- parents that do things differently than I do as a parent, but who love their children nonetheless. Parents who bring their best to the table. And what I have discovered about parents is this: parents tend to bring the best they have to give to their child’s education as well.
Is their best the same as my best or even your best? Not necessarily- but best is a relative term as long as we are not talking about inflicting harm or injury on another human being in physical, emotional or psychological ways. What I am trying to say here is that as long as we are aiming to do something productive for our children, what is BEST can differ.
Which brings us around to teachers.
Do teachers bring their best to school each day? Let’s assume that teachers do not meet the five criteria that Herman has established which make for bad teachers (disliking children, consistently uninterested in your subject matter, don’t have a clue what you are teaching, ignoring a large subset of your students most of the time, and who are overall, totally disengaged in teaching). Teachers who are not consistently any of those five and who also have a desire at all to investigate their practice and think about their identity as a professional are really who form the baseline for me. If teachers are at that place- caring somewhat about who they are and what they do, then I feel those teachers are bringing their best to the profession.
Now again: that word best, it is a relative word. When someone talks BEST they start envisioning other buzz phrases: words like charismatic, creative, reform-minded and inspirational. Words associated with teaching style like: engaging in praxis, integrating technology, differentiating instruction and scaffolding instruction. But I am not talking about setting a bar for best for either personality or teaching style. What I am maintaining here is that bringing your BEST SELF to work means bringing the self that cares.
Care is the quality that defines truly great teaching. And caring is for me the underlying quality that defines a good teacher.
Weighed against that criteria, good teachers are those who do the following:
Good teachers care about themselves- care for their own personal, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
Good teachers care about others- care for people both young and old both children, youth and adults.
Good teachers care about ideas- care about thinking and understanding, knowing and connecting.
Good teachers care about things- classrooms, and books, and lunches and school buses.
Good teachers also care about non-human entities: animals, and plants, eco-systems and habitats.
And good teachers finally care about experiences- what happens at home, in school and some of what happens in between.
Simply put: good teachers care.
And they tend to care a great deal the longer they exercise that caring muscle.
So when it comes to criteria for defining good and bad teachers, focusing on the fact that most teachers who care enough about ideas and experiences to read an article about teaching are probably good teachers, it almost becomes a waste of time for teachers to ask themselves if they are bad at their job. We hear enough negativity in the onslaught of media messages to waste too much on this consideration. What we need to be asking as teachers is this: what makes you a great teacher…and how can you find ways to do this again tomorrow?
Then too, ask yourself this: how can I find ways to rise above the imperfect circumstances in which I find myself, the less than ideal situations I find myself in as a teacher and be my best teaching self? And how can I tap into that reservoir of care that brought me into this profession in the first place?
Teachers, we are better than we think we are. We just have to remember.
We are a caring profession. And while we are diverse in scope- each of us bringing different traditions, orientations, philosophies, backgrounds, experiences, personalities, cultures, attitudes and beliefs to the table; what binds us together as a collective is our common care for our students and our profession. We care. And may we never forget how important that quality is in making us great teachers.