In the book “Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment” (http://www.solution-tree.com/authors/tom-hierck/pyramid-of-behavior-interventions.html), the authors speak about the impact teachers have. It’s an impact that lasts a lifetime. They ask the reader to consider these questions when recalling a teacher that they remember fondly as having made a difference in their lives: What qualities did he or she posses? What did that teacher do to make a connection with you? How did that teacher make your learning meaningful? What impact did he or she have on your life?
I often ask this question at staff development sessions and regardless of the school, district, or jurisdiction, I get a lot of responses that speak both positively and negatively about the impact educators have. The authors provide this list of the most common impacts attributed in a positive sense:
• Cared about me as an individual
• Brought learning to life, made it real
• Took extra time to help me learn
• Was always fair, reasonable, understanding
• Inspired me to do my best
They also provide the list of traits most commonly associated with educators who made learning miserable:
Did not know me or care about me
Made the subject material dry and boring
Was often unfair or arbitrary
Yelled and screamed, put kids down, belittled students
Seemed more interested in the subject than the kids
A recent event reminded me of the severe negative impact that can occur when educators don’t think of the power of their words and actions. Bear in mind that the sessions I facilitate generally involve highly trained, highly skilled, successful adults. Yet, there was a teacher recounting how his teacher humiliated him by publically mocking his inability to stay inside the lines while coloring. This event occurred forty years ago and still has emotional impact. Some might say this teacher ought to “get over it” and let it go. I would suggest he has and has done so in the most positive and proactive way – he became a teacher to ensure that students left feeling inspired and capable not humiliated and questioning their ability. If this type of impact is felt by highly capable people what happens with the student who does not possess the resiliency, support, or belief, that they can overcome the negativity? We don’t teach subjects, we teach kids! If the role of the teacher is to simply disseminate facts and mark assignments, it would be much more efficient doing nothing more than on-line correspondence. Fortunately much more is expected, and delivered, in classes and schools all over.
Lest anyone think that only negative stories become the end product of this activity, let me be clear – the positive recollections far outnumber the negative (which should make the negative easier to let go of). That does not surprise me, as innumerable visits to schools have clearly demonstrated that fact. Here’s one of the best ones that was shared: A teacher got up to provide a personal anecdote about her struggles as an elementary school students and how she was at the crossroads as another school year was coming to an end and high school was beckoning. She was fairly convinced that school and/or success were not part of her future. Her teacher at the time had taken it upon herself to write every student a personal note about their strengths and what she saw as part of their future. As a young student who was at the crossroads, the letter inspired her and reminded her of some strengths she had forgotten. While not the sole reason, the letter served as a catalyst to get her back on track. While the room was already pretty quiet as she shared her story, her next words created a stillness I have rarely seen replicated. She said, “I never had a chance to thank that teacher and I am so happy that she is here with us today.” She then identified the teacher to a tumultuous round of applause and not a dry eye in the place.
In both of these examples, I am convinced that neither teacher did what they did to create a lasting impression. The teacher who wrote the letter was simply sharing her belief in the capacity of children. Unfortunately, so was the teacher who made an example of coloring outside the lines. They both serve to remind that educators do make a difference. It may not always be obvious in the moment, but it’s there. This compels us to ensure that our students receive more positive than negative, and that they learn to build off their unique strengths.
Schools are not factories producing things. Schools should be social places where students and staff learn together. The goal is to become a community of learners, where students develop socially and emotionally as well as academically. Teachers who do this very well or very poorly both leave a lasting legacy on many individuals.