Advice from a Recovering High School Teacher
When my son goes to Grade 9 this month, there will be a surprise waiting for him at his school.
Hanging on the wall in one of the hallways is a picture of me, taken 20 years ago, as a teacher in his school.
There are several things about all this that are hard to believe. First, that my baby boy is in high school. Second, that it’s already been 20 years since I left teaching for a career in communications. And third, according to the picture, I used to have a chin.
In hindsight, there are lots of things I would have done differently as a young teacher. There are things I’ve learned since then as a parent. There are things I’ve learned watching my former students grow up, get jobs, start families and – in one case – become my boss as editor of Christian Courier.
And then there are things I’ve learned about myself (not only “lay off the Doritos, they’ll make your chin disappear in 20 years” but other things useful to teachers, too). When Angela and I were discussing this month’s column, we thought it might be fun to pass some of those lessons on to today’s high school teachers. So, here goes:
These giant, mumbling man-children were babies yesterday.
Yes, time flies. Everybody knows that. And for parents, it really does seem like just the other day you were collecting bugs in the forest with your boy or teaching your little girl how to ride her bike. Teens themselves don’t feel this way – childhood is a poorly remembered and vaguely embarrassing blur a thousand years ago. Teachers don’t know this – all they see in front of them is a six-foot tall fedora-wearing, grouchy texting machine. Only parents are the custodians of a child’s entire lifetime of memories. Only parents were present when that heart first started beating, and they know best what is inside it. Listen to them.
Ask every student to be their best.
The unique role of a teacher is to unlock a student’s potential. Teachers see and understand better than anyone else – parents included – what subjects and ideas and activities students are passionate about. Cultivate that. Nurture that. And demand that where students are good at something they become even better and where they struggle, that they dig deep within themselves to do their very best. And when parents push back – thinking maybe you’re demanding too much – stand firm. High school kids are incredibly capable and smart, and you’re doing the right thing by setting goals for them.
Adolescence can be temporary insanity.
My dad – himself a Grade 8 teacher for 35 years – used to say that the person someone is at 11 is the same person they will become again at 21. In between, kids can get lost in a fog of growth and hormones and added pressures and responsibilities. If you think back to your own time in high school you know it’s tough – and we do and say a lot of things we later regret. But our character, which is formed at an early age, is always present. When our kids emerge on the other side of all the turmoil, they’ll be better and stronger people and more like who they were before high school than who they were during it.
You never know who they will become.
The quietest, least engaged student in my senior history class became a history teacher. The kid who never showed any interest in sports went on to play varsity in university. The kid who was an argumentative pain in the butt became a lawyer (okay, maybe I could have seen that coming). The point is, years later you will be astounded at who your students have become. If you’re a good teacher, you will have played a positive part in their journey.
But trust me on this – lay off the Doritos.