When my son Sam was getting close to finishing his master’s degree in education last month, I knew one of the most valuable gifts he could receive would have to come from somebody else. Sam will be teaching English literature at Tucson’s Flowing Wells High School in the fall. So I contacted Mike Dant, a retired high school English teacher who lives in Green Valley. But Mike’s not just any English teacher, he was mine when I was a student at Westwood High School in Mesa years ago. I knew Mike had something valuable to share and he didn’t let me down. He wrote the following piece for Sam, and they’ve allowed me to publish it. We all met Monday over lunch to talk about it.
Personal note to Sam: Mom and I are proud of you and the profession you’ve chosen. We know you’ll help direct thousands of lives in coming years; we pray you’ll lead each class with wisdom, patience and integrity.
— Dan Shearer
By Mike Dant
You’ve earned the degree. You’ve completed student teaching. The short summer will soon be over. On Monday you will meet a batch of students for the first time. They’re yours.
Please understand that the career you have chosen is the most important of all possible careers, for you have committed to help children learn, to help them grow.
You are a professional educator. Act like one. Dress like one. Embrace the idea that you are now a role model for students, both a joyful and an awesome responsibility.
On the first day of class you must tell students that you care for them, that you want them to succeed, that you want to help them. Assure them that you will work at gaining their trust, that you want to help them navigate their lives as well as teaching them curriculum content. Tell them that you’ll be available before the school day begins and after it ends. Encourage them to share their successes with you, to share their problems with you. Tell them that you’ll listen to them, that you want to be their friend as well as their teacher. Display that caring in your classroom. Then wait. They’ll come. When the word spreads (and it will) that you’re a listener, a helper, they’ll seek you. And you’ll begin to understand why your job is so vital.
Students know stuff. They know sincerity. They also know phoniness. Therefore, it is paramount that you offer a solid curriculum. Meat. No junk. Help them understand that what you’ve chosen to teach them is relevant to their lives, now and in the future. When you discuss an assignment that they’ve read, relate it to their lives. When you give a writing assignment, let them know that what they write will help them better understand themselves as well as the world outside the classroom.
Get out from behind the desk! Roam the classroom. It’s okay to kneel down next to a student and talk. Laugh. Encourage students to laugh. Tell them stories about your life. And if you’ve screwed up somewhere along the way, share that. It’ll make you human. Encourage students to challenge your opinion on lessons. Acknowledge their ability to think. It’s acceptable for you to show emotions too — but not hateful ones.
Don’t you dare use sarcasm on students! Don’t you dare humiliate them! Doing so is anathema to education, and students will never forget—or forgive.
Know that what occurs in your classroom is talked about at home—and in the hallways.
Here’s a kind of downer about teaching. So often you don’t know which ideas “take” and which don’t. You just have to accept that. Something may have happened in your classroom that affected a student forever, and you’ll never know it. And too many “gems” that you know are eternal will be soon forgotten.
Sometime, perhaps decades from now, a student will contact you. That now-adult will remind you of a moment savored or of an idea/lesson remembered. That former student will thank you for your great influence.
And that evening you are allowed another glass of wine.
Mike Dant can be reached at email@example.com