Simple Steps To Become An Educator Who Makes A Difference

I recently participated in a Twitter chat and the question posed was something along the lines of:  why is education a worthwhile field to pursue?  

This question really brought me back to my college days and caused me to reflect on my decision to be an educator.

I was a junior at SUNY Cortland and in a fine establishment called the Dark Horse. That night the “Horse” was offering 25 cent drafts and $2.00 pizzas.  

I was pontificating about the future with some friends and a girl I was dating. As many college students do, we thought we were going to change the world and make a lot of money.  It wasn’t a surprise that as a SUNY Cortland student I was pursuing a Physical Education degree.

My middle school dream of being a professional basketball player was crushed by my lack of size, speed, and overall athleticism.  There didn’t seem to be much demand for 5’ 11” shoot first, pass second point guard who lacked speed and the ability to jump over a stack of pennies.

Therefore I was starting to come to the realization that I was going to be a Physical Education teacher. This didn’t go over well with my crowd.

One friend said, “Really Fel?  That’s what you are going to be? A Gym teacher?”  

The girlfriend chimed in, “Ha, I am not going to be married to a GYM teacher.”  

I was a bit confused, first because I thought being a teacher, specifically a Physical Education teacher, was a pretty cool job, even though it wasn’t the highest paying one.  And, two, it was because I had never made the offer to marry this short time girlfriend, who after that comment, found her time was coming to an end.  

I started to defend my choice by stating that I would get to be around kids, stay in shape, play ball, and make extra money during summers.  

They didn’t seem convinced and I am not sure I was at the time either.

Was I “too good” to be a “gym teacher?”

Was I destined for more?  

The beer flowed and the topic changed, but the conversation stayed with me for years and today I can still taste the flat, sour beer, smell the stale scent of the “Horse”, and hear the dueling banjos blasting from the DJ booth.  

I am now old enough and wise enough to smile back on that moment because there was no better decision I have ever made in my life than to be an educator.  There is not better job, no better opportunity to make a difference, no better chance to change the world than to be a teacher.  The great thing is that each and everyday day we have a chance to make a child’s life better, not only for that day, but for a lifetime.  

We have all had those one or two teachers who have made a difference in our lives. For me, it was Mr. C.  He was my 6th grade ELA teacher.

Mr. C was young, energetic, and different. Mr. C didn’t fit the mold of the town or school. He rocked a pseudo mullet, stud diamond earring, and wore skinny leather ties with an untucked dress shirt.  This was not the norm in this uber conservative, primarily white Italian town in upstate New York.  Mr. C was the outsider, a “Johnny come lately” as he was referred to by the loud, boisterous, and self proclaimed king of the school, who was also the school’s gym teacher.  

The gym teacher, Frank, felt strongly about Mr. C’s staying power in Marlboro and his fashion sense. “That guy will never make it around here with that earring. He is lucky I don’t rip that thing right out of his ear.”

As small as the town and school were Frank was large–in girth, personality, strength, and confidence.  You didn’t mess with Frank because, if you did, he would either make an offer to “take a walk outside” or, in his relentless manner, make your life miserable until you conceded to his wishes.

During my 6th grade year it was rare that a day would go by that I didn’t see Frank’s large paws start banging on my classroom door, followed by his finger pointing to me and slowly gesturing me to leave the classroom and follow him to his dated, smelly office.

Teachers never stopped him from pulling me out of class, probably because they feared him, partly because it wasn’t worth the hassle, but primarily because they could use a break from my antics.  

That was until Mr. C came to town.  This skinny man who didn’t  weigh a 125 pounds soaking wet at 23 years of age stood up to this 325 pound man full of Italian rage.

When Frank would come to his class, my teacher would greet him at the door and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he could not remove me from his class to interrogate me. There were times when I thought Frank was going to try to muscle past him and drag me out of the class, but Mr. C stood strong!

My English class became my only safe haven.  It didn’t matter where I was, school, town, or at home, the only place that Frank didn’t have access to me was in Mr. C’s class.

You may wonder why the gym teacher was so interested in speaking to me.  The reason was that Frank is my father and during my 6th grade year my parents were separated. He would take every opportunity to seek me out, alternating between begging me to convince my mother to take him back to telling me “I was a little creep that ruined his marriage.”

You can imagine this was a tough time for an 11 year old. This was a time when I needed a teacher’s support most.  Mr. C was that teacher for me.  He listened to me, protected me, and most of all believed in me.  He didn’t think less of me or walk on eggshells around me because of who my father was.  On top of all of that, he inspired me to learn and gave me confidence in myself as a student.  

One unscripted lesson stands out.  We were reading the Diary of Anne Frank.  When he asked the class who had done the required reading the night before I had lied and said I did.  I broke out into a little bit of a cold sweat when he announced that he was going to give a quick quiz about the reading.  I was nervous, not because I cared so much about a bad grade, but I was petrified to disappoint him and for him to think less of me.

So what did I do?  I took the quiz, convinced I could bluff my way through it.  I am not sure exactly what all the questions were, but I do remember Anne had given gifts to others hiding in the attic with her and we had to describe those gifts.  I made them up and came up with answers such as Anne gave her mouth to the dentist so he could practice his craft.

I wasn’t sure if I had pulled it off, but I wasn’t all that confident.  This left me with a pit in my stomach for the next 24 hours.

The next day when I went to class I was looking at Mr. C for a sign of his disgust in me.

This never came.

Instead, he called me to his desk and with a little smile on his face said, “ You didn’t read the required reading the other night did you?”

I shook my head, near tears. He let out a loud chuckle and said, “I am disappointed you didn’t read and, more importantly, that you lied to me, but your answers were amazing!  You have an incredible voice in your writing and this is one of the most creative pieces I have ever read.  I think writing may be in your future.”

I can’t tell you how amazing that made me feel.  No teacher had ever complimented me on my writing before.  Considering I had the “handwriting of a first grader” and was probably the worst speller in the grade, my writing had never been praised before.  In fact, still today, I am not really sure what you use ; symbol for.   When I reminded him of my deficiencies he told me that wasn’t what was important.  He told me the ability to tell a story that people wanted to read was what really mattered.

“The grammar and punctuation can be fixed, but you are a storyteller, you are a writer and don’t let anyone tell you differently.”  

I assumed that meant a passing grade on the pop quiz, so I asked if that meant I got an A.  

He laughed again and said, “noooooooo, tonight you will read what you were supposed read in the first place and tomorrow during lunch you and I will talk about the reading and maybe if you are interested, I can give you some tips on writing.”   

His offer was not only appealing because it saved me from being pulled out of lunch by the PE teacher to play one on one basketball against an 8th grade student to prove I was going to be Marlboro’s next great point guard, but also because someone in the school saw me as an individual not as Rumbler’s son (one of my fathers many nicknames).

Mr. C was there for me during a time in my life that I needed him most.  I hope that somewhere a former student of mine is fondly reflecting on something I did for them when they needed it most.  

As educators we have a chance to do that each and everyday.  We don’t always know what is going on in our students’ lives, but we can sure try our hardest to find out. We don’t know when something we do will have a lasting impact, but everyday is an opportunity to do just that.  

What job could be a possibly be more important, more fulfilling, and more desirable than one in which you can make a child’s life better?

It’s this realization that makes me happy to come to work everyday and to look at school and kids through a different lense. What can I do today to make a difference?

I have realized that is the number one priority for today, tomorrow, and the next day, right up until the last day I work. This epiphany helped me to become a better and happier educator. When educators realize this, it helps you to stop taking it personally when students misbehave, fail a test, or, gasp, don’t do their homework.

I have tried a few strategies over the years that I have found to be successful in building relationships with students.  They are relatively easy to do and worth giving a try.

The first I call “the hard hello.” You pick one student in your school that is considered by many “that kid”,  the one who is always in trouble, never doing their work, usually aggressive, and sometimes mean.  This is someone that every adult in the school has heard of.  You learn the student’s name and make a point to say hello using their name every single day for one month straight. You may not get a response at first; you may even get a dirt look, but you commit to saying hello every day looking for nothing in return.  Don’t press the student to say hello back. Don’t offer advice or engage in a conversation unless the student asks or initiates it.  

Sounds pretty simple because it is, but you will be as amazed as I was that by saying hello everyday will not only change your relationship with this student ,but his overall attitude in school. I promise if you give this a go the results will astonish you.  

The next is called the 2×2.  Pick two students who you want to try to make a difference for. It should be two students who are struggling in some way academically, socially, behaviorally, or maybe they just seem sad. Once you have selected the two students, commit to speaking to each of them individually for at least two minutes every single day, again for one month.  You can talk about anything you or they want except school.  You should not bring up grades, behavior, or anything else school related during this time.  Teachers shouldn’t  have trouble finding four minutes a day and, again, I promise the results will shock you.

This can be done by teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodians, or pretty much anyone in the school.  I have seen such positive results with this strategy that schools have expanded the strategy. Administrators can block off 45 minutes each day and do this with 15-20 students.  This strategy can change the entire dynamic of a school.  I have seen it take off like wildfire and, before long, every child can have an adult that they have developed a special bond with. Not only are students happier, but the adults become happier as well and the entire building can take on a more positive vibe.  

The final strategy is a bit tougher to implement.  I call it The Groundhog Day strategy named after the beloved movie of the same name from the early nineties.  The concept of the movie (spoiler alert) is that Bill Murray’s character is stuck reliving the same day over and over again in a town he does not want to be in.  He finally is able to move on when he lives the perfect day by helping to make the day better for all of those he encounters.  

Make one day, I would suggest tomorrow all about making it better for everyone that you come in contact with. Your job for the day is no matter what, make every single person you encounter’s day better.  Someone cuts you off in the car don’t take it personal, just smile and let them move ahead of you. The teacher you don’t connect with makes a snide remark,  ignore it and give them a genuine compliment.  A student asks for some help during lunch,  give up the planned trip to the pizza shop with friends to help the student.  Your three kids want three different meals for dinner (like mine do every night) get it for them.  You get the point.  Make it a game, see how well you can play it.

I can tell you from experience it is easy to say, but tougher to do. But, if you make it through the day you will be filled with pride and fulfillment. More importantly, you will have made a difference for many people that day.  You also may find you are happier going to bed that night than you have been in a long time.  This may not be a realistic to accomplish everyday (not to mention may spoil your kids) but this exercise will give you a different perspective on your role as an educator and the impact on happiness that doing good for others can have.  Give it a go!

I still look back at that night in the Dark Horse and the only thing I regret is not defending my future profession more passionately because every morning when I get up I have the chance to make a difference. Isn’t that what we all want as bright eyed college kids, and even today as adults–  to be a difference maker?

On a side note, Frank was right about one thing; Mr. C didn’t last long in Marlboro.  He moved on to a District in Rockland county, the county where I work now.  Recently I found out that some of the people I work with had Mr. C as their teacher as well.  

You won’t be surprised to know that Mr. C had a positive impact on them as well and we often share stories of how he has influenced us. I am still shocked at  what a small world it is we live in. As an educator you have the opportunity to be someone who can be a large figure in that small world.

Is there a better time to start leaving your legacy than the start of a new year?