During my 36 years in the classroom I had the privilege of teaching more than 9,000 students. I feel blessed to have had contact with hundreds of them over the years. The Internet has helped. When one of these former students contacts me, I always ask the same question: “What do you most remember from being a student in my class?” I taught History, Government, Psychology, World Studies, and Current World Affairs, among other things, in a public high school.
I thought at least some of them would comment on the subject matter. After all, I did spend hours and hours on those lesson plans. I thought they might remember some the interesting little “Fascinating Facts” I threw into each lesson. A few examples:
• Reno is further west than Los Angeles
• Our little county (San Mateo County) has twice as many people as all of Wyoming
• Theodore Roosevelt was our youngest President (42)
• There are 54 countries in Africa
• The Nile River flows north
Darn! Not one of those or any other of my “Fascinating Facts” came up. While many of those students performed admirably in academics, they have more vivid memories about the human side of teaching than the academic side. It doesn’t disappoint me in the least.
Here’s what they most remember:
1. “We were welcomed at the door every day” – This was not only the most important thing I did every day, but the most energizing and the most fun. The kids were made to feel welcome on a personal and individual basis, and I got charged up by their greetings. Everybody won.
2. “We had a caring community” – This is my favorite term in Character Education, and I used it often at the beginning of the school year. I made it clear that it was Goal #1. We worked together on creating it by discussing the Golden Rule, mutual respect, manners, getting to know each other, and building a team spirit. Everyone knew what was expected of them.
3. “Every class started with something fun and positive” – After greeting them at the door and taking attendance, I pointed to a sign above my head. It said CELEBRATE TODAY! I asked them who had something good to say. They had four choices: 1. Share good news, 2. Complete this sentence – “I’m thankful for . . .”, 3. Say something positive about a classmate’s character, 4. Make us laugh.
4. “Life is hard” – This came up in every class early in the year, usually during the first assignment. Someone would say in a whiny voice, “This is hard.” I would smile, call time out, go to the board, and write this is large letters: LIFE IS HARD. This was followed by a healthy discussion of how achievement comes before work only in the dictionary. In my last year in the classroom (2000-01) a student who had been a 9th grader in the late 80s came by school for a visit. After getting caught up with his life after high school, I asked him my standard question: “What do you most remember from being a student in my class?” He didn’t hesitate. He smiled and said, “Life is hard.” He explained how that one three-word sentence had affected his life (in a good way).
5. “We wrote all the rules – and followed them” – In my second year of teaching I had the great pleasure of attending an all-day workshop for teachers conducted by Dr. William Glasser. He said something profound that day: “If you want the kids to honor the rules, give them ownership of the rules.” From that year on my students wrote almost (I always wrote a couple) all the DO’S and DON’TS for the year. Glasser was right. They honored their own rules.
6. “Words are powerful” – On the second day of school I wrote three words on the board - neutral, toxic, nourishing - and then explained that each word coming from our mouths falls into one of those categories. We made a big list of the things we didn’t want to hear (toxic) and another list of the things we did want to hear (nourishing). The kids understood quickly how their words (and mine) determined the atmosphere of the class. It was always a good one.
7. “You were strict, but not mean” – This is another little “words on the board” exercise I did early in the second week of school. These two words went up: STRICT - MEAN. We then had a discussion, with the help of the dictionary, as to how they do not mean the same thing. I assured them that I was strict, but not mean. They got it, and it did wonders in helping them cooperate with my classroom management strategies.
8. “You told good stories” – I learned during my first year of teaching, right after a lesson I had worked on for more than eight hours bombed in 50 minutes. One of our best teachers told me that day to never forget that telling a good story was the most powerful teaching tool I would ever have. He was right. People of all ages will listen to a good story. Not so true regarding a lecture.
9. “We laughed a lot” – Science tells us that we benefit greatly from laughter, both physically and psychologically. While it was always a challenge early on to convince teenagers that there really is such a thing as good, clean humor, the efforts always paid off. Again, they got it, and my classroom was a more pleasant place because of it.
10. “My mom still has my Good Kid Notices” – Our school district had a form called a referral. It was sent home and to a dean when a student did something wrong. The kids called these referrals “Bad Kid Notices” for obvious reasons. I asked what the school did when a student did something good. It probably won’t surprise you that the answer was “nothing.” So I devised a simple little form called the “Good Kid Notice.” It was a joy sending them, and a greater joy being contacted afterwards by happy and proud parents.
Every day teachers can have a positive impact on kids. It’s much more likely to be about some aspect of good character (the human side of teaching) than it is about academics.