Lessons From My Younger Self

I had the opportunity last week to connect with two former students, students from my first teaching job some twenty years and three Districts ago.

Sharing stories, offering advice, learning from each other, made these interactions magical and emotional.  It brought me back to another time in my life, one that I continue to reflect upon. Wondering how can 25 years seem so close that I can touch and smell it one moment and so distant and surreal in the next that it feels like the memories of someone other than myself?

Hearing the trials and tribulations of my students had me feeling proud of their progress, their ideas, their efforts to make their dreams a reality. Yet, it also brought melancholy feelings knowing that no one can escape the realities of life and growing up.

Life is hard, even cruel for everyone at various points in their lives. This reality holds true for children frozen in your mind as they were at 13. We all grapple with the realization that time becomes less and less of a friend with each passing year. Asking ourselves do I have enough or have I wasted too much of it is a downright scary proposition.

I am not sure if it the recent connections with my students, or my oldest going off to college or turning 47, an age that just seems so far away from that 27 year old that I still feel and sometimes act like, (Minus the fresh face, sturdy back, and greyless mane.), but I keep revisiting my time as a physical education teacher and coach at Onteora, a small District in upstate New York.

Wondering was I good enough, wishing I knew then what I know now.  Did I protect them, did I build them up, did I embarrass them or use sarcasm?  These thoughts make my head hurt. They make me wish I had:

  • Got to know their story better
  • Found out what their passions were
  • Went to their plays, concerts, games, graduations
  • Protected them from the nonsense
  • Listened more
  • Helped them decide what they wanted to do with their life

I was the young “gym teacher” and coach back then. I was well liked by the students; you see it is always easier to be liked by students when you are new to the profession, when you are so close to the age of your students. You speak the same language, have similar cultural references, and, in my case, a similar maturity level to the Middle Schoolers I educated.Yes, it is easier to relate to kids when you are closer to their age, a reality that has been confirmed by my inability to work the remote, often barking at my kids about how there are just too many channels, sounding like a dad circa 1990 when TV shifted from a few channels 2 (CBS), 4(NBC), 5(FOX), 7(ABC), 9(Where you watch the Brady Bunch and Mets) and 11 (PIX.)  to over 30 what seemed like overnight.

Yet, I ask did I really make a difference, do some good, bring value to the profession. I have always thought my skill set was better suited to be an administrator than a physical education teacher. The fast pace, the quick decisions, the freedom of your schedule. I have often thought I am a much better administrator than I was a teacher.

I needed some answers; so I asked at the risk of sounding narcissistic “What did you guys think of me? Was I any good as a teacher?”  I explained that I wish I could have been better did more, had the knowledge, skill and patience I have today.

My student started by telling me that I wasn’t creepy, not the praise I was looking for, but it was a start. She told a story about one of the “bad guys” in the profession, a fellow PE teacher who was, in fact, creepy and as she explained how his creepy had her feeling violated describing the incident it in detail some 20 years from when it had occurred.

I was not surprised by his actions, but I was angry at that teacher and even more angry at myself for my ignorance and lack of action. She let me off the hook by explaining how she and many of her friends felt I was on their side and they could count on me.

Giggling and sounding exactly how I remember her in as a 7th grader she told me how when she works with young people she tells her “gym” story.  Often making excuses to sit out of PE class because it embarrassed her to play sports with the “cute” boys. Apparently I never gave her a hard time, or bad grades, allowing her to walk the track or sit on the sidelines, which made her want to come to class and not skip like some of her friends who had other PE teachers did.

I found it ironic that this young lady, who made excuses and rarely participated in Physical Education is a fit adult who makes her living teaching yoga to young people. This solidified what I have suspected for sometime now. It is often more important to give our students what they need emotionally than to deliver content.

Is it not our job as educators to help young people navigate adolescence and that transition into adulthood to teach them how to be good people, people who live a fulfilled life, and people who pursue what is important to them not what we think should be important?

I continued to think about what I did and didn’t do as a young educator, cringing at some of my mistakes, yet also proud of the times I did something right despite my lack of knowledge.

The free passes when a kid needed it, the lunches spent eating with students, opening the gym on free periods, the conversations and covering for them, even breaking the rules sometimes, these thoughts helped me to realize that despite all I didn’t know, the 25-year-old hot-headed kid was really about the kids back then. I smiled inwardly for a second before panic set in…….as I asked myself a more important question…….would that 25-year-old kid be proud of who I turned out to be today?

Life can wear you down, you can become complacent, and if you are not careful, you can lose your spark, your willingness to go out on a limb for what you believe in, worrying too much about surviving or advancing then having the cojones to do something meaningful. Change can be so slow, is it because once leaders get enough experience, and are savvy enough to rise in an organization they are shells of who they used to be afraid to make a misstep?

At first I wanted to go back in time and teach that cocky hotheaded Coach, but then I realized that I have just as much to learn from the young version of myself as he from me.

Age does not make us the best version of ourselves, or the best educators, or the best people.  We can be our best at any age, do great things at any age, students can teach us, rookies can teach us, veterans can teach us, retirees can teach us. We can achieve excellence at any age 5, 15, 25, 45, 95. That is why it is so important for the veterans in the field to learn from the rooks and vice versa.

My thoughts on what I would like to learn from rookies like my younger self:  

Learn their culture and language

Young teachers can have an unfair advantage in connecting with students.  I was 22 when I started teaching, not much older than the young people I was working with. I spoke their language, knew their interests, watched the same shows and listened to the same music. Today it takes more effort, but when you put in that effort you may find some of what kids like today is good.  Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, and YA novels have brought me joy, watching others narrate video games……not so much. We may not like what our students like, but it doesn’t mean it is not good or important to them. When adults attempt to understand kids and their culture everyone benefits…just don’t try hard, as Phoenix Dalto discusses in his brilliant TEDx talk that offers insights into the mind of students.

Protect the Kids

Be that teacher the kids want to eat lunch with, that go to when they’re in a jam, that helps them figure out have to navigate a system that doesn’t always make sense or meet their needs.  Be the one that decides based on what the student in front of you needs, not what everyone else thinks should be done or what has been done in the past. Be that person!

Be Audacious

When you are new to the profession you have not figured out what you are supposed to do and not do. You haven’t yet learned all the hoops you must jump through to make a great idea (or not so great idea) a reality. The newbies often just go for it…I want to be like that again!

Save them all

I am still pained  when I hear about a former student who passed away due to drug addiction, or is incarcerated, or down on their luck.  As a young teacher I thought they all would be something special (still do), and tried to help get them there. I have to remind myself that I may not save them all but I better damn well try!

Those new to the profession have so much to offer us to evoke change to challenge the thinking of veterans like myself, but I wish I could go back in time and teach a younger me:

Stand up

Every profession has them, in fact every family does. Those people who have lost their way. They may be the ones who forgot what it was like to be a kid and in their self righteous way look down upon the youth they are charged with shaping.  They may have been burnt out by too many angry parents, bad administrators, life beat them over the head one too many times, or they may just be counting the days until retirement. John Gordon refers to them as energy vampires.  Regardless of how they got that way they will try to bring down anyone who makes them look bad.  Challenge them when they embarrass kids, don’t laugh at their insensitive jokes, ignore or better yet tell them to stop it when they talk ill of others,  just stand up, let them know they are not the majority and they are wrong.

Listen

If you are like I was at 27 you think you have all the answers, you will find out as I did when you get older you realize how little you know.  You can learn a lot from all the amazing educators in our field. You may not always agree with them, but when you listen with an open mind you are bound to improve at your craft.

Be professional

Take care of your business.  Don’t be late, come to work, turn in your paperwork, dress the part. Be engaged in meetings even if they are boring. Yes, even us old people can tell that you are not not staring at your lap, but playing on your phone. You lose credibility when you are not a professional; if you want to be respected as an educator earn it too many of us have worked to care and care too much to have someone disrespect what we do.

Think before you act

It is harder to build trust than it is to break it. One misplaced insult can destroy a relationship for a lifetime. When I was younger I would speak first and think later, often spewing nonsense out of anger or emotion.  As I have gotten older and wiser I still do that, but just not as much. I hope to get to the point in my life where it never happens. The passion of a new teacher is a wonderful resource that should not be discouraged, but still take a breath so you can see a situation from multiple angles, understand the pros and cons, figure out who will be the winners and losers and who are you going to make angry. Try to see it from every angle and then show empathy in your words, actions, and decisions.

I love the field of education and all the amazing students and educators I have worked for and with. This week connecting with my past helped me to realize the strengths and weaknesses I have today and have had at different points in my career. It also made me realize how much we can offer each other. That first year teacher or that fifty-year teacher. We will all be better when we are vulnerable, open, and willing to learn from everyone regardless of their age, their background, their political beliefs, their pedagogical theories, their gender, or lifestyle.

Every time I connect with a student or athlete from my past I am reminded certain truths. Students rarely remember the lesson in the classroom you taught them yet they remember those lessons in life.

They rarely remember things said in conversations, but they always remember how they felt in your presence, they know if you were on their side; they know the good guys from the bad.

I feel the job of an educator is to do everything we can do to help our students survive the hormones, the trauma, the strife, the uncertainty and the self doubt they all face, we all have faced as young people. It is our job to help them navigate those wonderful, painful, and scary years guiding them in hopes they become the best version of themselves that they can be.