Veteran Teacher Explains How He Went From A “Babe In the Woods” to “Developing a Clear Vision.”

One of my very best childhood friends who has known me since we were the same age of the students that I’ve taught over these years had a question for me. He asked, now that retirement has arrived, what were my goals when I first began teaching and did I meet these goals? An interesting question, I thought. 

As I entered the field of teaching I was tabula rasa – a blank slate. In fact, with my age and background I was an extremely blank slate, academically prepared but lacking a clear vision. To be honest, the only goal I had in mind as I entered the classroom was personal survival. I was a babe in the woods. I needed to learn to navigate my way – how to maintain order in the classroom, prepare engaging lessons, develop patience. Thankfully, as time went on I learned the ropes and deeper goals emerged.

An early goal became getting my students to develop a better work ethic. Far too many of the boys and girls were choosing to simply get by; just passing was enough for them. I was largely teaching 10th graders at the time and I knew that their next year – the 11th grade – was their most important academic year when it came to college acceptance. I needed to reframe their mindset as soon as possible. One means of reshaping their thinking was to equate good grades with scholarship money down the road. Enhancing your academic performance will put money in your pocket, I told them. I also pushed them to do excellent work because it’s simply the right thing to do. When is slacking ever really rewarded, I would ask? I’m not saying this worked with everyone, but a number of students got the message and moved from being C students to B students, or upped their grades from B’s to A’s.

Another important goal was for my students to graduate on time in four years, not five or even in some cases six! Happily, now four years is the standard timeframe. Our school took a forceful approach to making students more responsible for accumulating required credits and passing required Regents Examinations. Failing classes means retaking the class. If you hated the class the first time, why on earth would you ever want to sit through it more than once? Failed exams require taking them over and over. Getting kids to understand these dynamics is challenging, but understand them they must.

Hand in hand with the goal of graduating on time is for our students to recognize that education is the pathway to success and the means of overcoming any challenges they might face in life. Far too many of our students confront issues of poverty, homelessness, and violence that are beyond their control. Far too many of our students also create their own challenges as a result of poor decisions, poor behaviors, or a poor work ethic. I’ve had some success in this area. Virtually every graduating senior leaves us to continue on in college, or into a training or vocational program, or military service.

Goals for my students beyond the classroom emerged as well. One goal that arose was getting our young men and women to make better choices about friendships, romantic relationships, dealing with parents, you name it. I encouraged the kids to take a step back at times and not to immediately react to every situation. I advised them at the same time to have more patience, indeed a higher degree of patience than they’ve seen exhibited by me a time or two. I’ve met with some success here, but this is something that will truly come to them as they mature.

Another important goal was for my students to have honesty and integrity in everything they do, not only when they are with us, but when they leave us as well. I remember a wonderful moment where I saw this very characteristic on coast to coast display. I am a fan of both Judge Judy and The People’s Court programs. One day I’m watching an episode of the latter and a former student was the defendant. The hair on the back of my neck began to stand up! I’ve seen people come on these programs and lie in front of ten million viewers. I don’t understand exposing yourself in this way. But our student took the high road.  She was being sued for a cell phone bill she shared with a friend and after the plaintiff stated her case, our former student presented her position. She did indeed owe her friend money, she said, just not what the plaintiff was asking for. She didn’t obfuscate, she didn’t skew the facts, she just laid out her honest position and the judge agreed with her. I was proud of the manner in which she carried herself.

Sadly, a goal with which I’ve had  limited success has been getting our kids to meet deadlines and to be on time. I don’t know what it is, but there just seems to be something out there in the sauce of life that impedes this generation from seeing the importance of timeliness. I let them know in no uncertain terms that while I may accept a late paper, when they go to college their instructor will not do so. Moreover, when they have a job and a deadline has been set, the deadline is not a suggestion but a requirement. The difference between meeting a deadline and missing a deadline in the work world is  often the difference between keeping a job and losing a job.

Overall, I’m satisfied I’ve accomplished my goals. Yet, my ultimate goal is that I want the young women and young men who have been in my care to become responsible and productive adults. That’s pretty much the bottom line for me. Time will tell whether or not I’ve succeeded.

What do you think?

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