Teachers don’t make a lot of money. They are usually not deemed worthy of news coverage unless there is a scandal or a strike. Most of the time, their major accomplishments are shared only with colleagues and family members and not the media. The celebration is often cut short by some catastrophe the next day. Yet, in spite of the highs and lows, I cannot think of another profession that brings both joy and challenge on a daily basis.
In the spring of my career, I found myself questioning the choice of my life’s work. The students did not appear to be motivated, the paperwork was overwhelming and the constant change of educational direction was discouraging. But, I just could not seem bring myself to do anything else. “Next year”, I would say. “Next year I will switch jobs, make more money and have far less stress.” Next year just never came. I am now in year 40. And while I am no longer in the classroom or at the schoolhouse, I remain an educator. It finally dawned on me that there was no other profession that would let me change children’s minds and have an impact on their future, long after the school day and school year were over. For every student that finally “got it,” for every rookie teacher that said, “you inspired me to stay,” I get the raise that never quite made it to my paycheck.
I was on a plane recently and the flight attendant asked my name. When I told him, he said, “I knew that was you! You taught at my elementary school. You made me take my cap off in the building and told me I was handsome.” He then paused and said: “I think I kept my hat on until you saw me, just so I could get that compliment. Thank you for making me feel special.” I don’t think he realized how special he made me feel that day. There have been so many former students over the years that have made me realize the sustaining power of relationships.
I most certainly realize the extreme importance of being a competent teacher. Unfortunately, far too many in our ranks are unqualified and poorly trained. Many are working tirelessly to rectify that. But while we address what we teach and when we teach it, we must not forget to include how we deliver those lessons. Unless there is a connection between teacher, student and lesson, learning becomes tiresome to all involved. Veteran educator, James Comer, states that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Yet, the value of relationships is often downplayed or ignored completely in teacher preparation programs. Even more disturbing is the lack of useable information on the relationship building process. There is the belief among some that camaraderie between teachers and students leads to unprofessional familiarity or places the teacher in a weakened position in the classroom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strong relationships encourage learner exploration, dialogue, confidence, and mutual respect.
I made it my business to know everything I could about my students. Where they lived and with whom, how often they changed schools, how many siblings they had, whether or not they lived in a house or an apartment, whether there was trauma or drama in the household. I went on home visits and shopped in the neighborhood stores so I could be certain to run into my students and the folk they lived with. (Some of my best parent conferences were held on the produce aisle at the grocery store). Many may consider my actions extreme. I called it “preparation for what might lie ahead.” Teaching and learning is often hindered by the details not found in school records. There is an African proverb that states: “The best time to make a friend is when you don’t need one.” I was being proactive. It is advice I always give to others.
The more you know about a person, the easier it is to develop an alliance (if that is your intention). Positive, healthy relationships rely on clear communication. Without it, misunderstandings occur and intentions are misinterpreted. I wanted an open pathway to learning, so I was open to their questions, as well.
We have now entered an age where nothing is private and secrets are hard to keep. Your “friends” are counted by simply clicking a button. Face to face interactions are seen by many as unnecessary and time-consuming. Of course, we can do just about anything online, including teaching and learning. But I guess I am just old school. I want to look into your eyes when the answer finally dawns on you. I want to hear that inflection in your voice when you are angry with me. I want to see the smile on your face when you forgive me. I want to share in the joy when we both realize that we make a good team.
Rita F. Pierson, Ed.D. of Houston, Texas, has been a professional educator since 1972. As an educator, she has served in numerous roles, including elementary regular and special education teacher, junior high school teacher, counselor, assistant principal, director, testing coordinator, and consultant. In addition, she is a Licensed Professional Counselor. Rita also developed and implemented a school/community involvement program for a large urban elementary school, as well as organized and trained an in-school crisis team for students in need of immediate intervention. An experienced consultant, Rita has presented numerous workshops for aha! Process, Inc. since 1997.