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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8

Voices: The Professor / Remember Our First Love

      Professional journals flood us with innovative ideas to heal the ills of schools: site-based management, modular scheduling, schools within schools, charter schools, assessment-driven reform, inclusion. Sometimes, teachers must feel the way I did on my first visit to the FAO Schwarz Toy Store in New York City. Before I went in, I knew exactly what I wanted to buy. With so many toys to catch my eye, however, I picked up one item after another, set each down, and finally walked out of the store, empty-handed. Everything I picked up had appeared, at least for a moment, to be just what I needed. But what had I originally intended to buy? I couldn't remember.
      At the risk of being simplistic, I would ask each of you to recall why you decided to become an educator. In the beginning, what was your focus? What is it now? Are the two related? If not, why? Perhaps the catalyst for bringing about positive change in education is really something very simple, very private, and to be found within each of us who call ourselves teachers.
      Recently I conducted an informal study in two university-level teacher certification classes. I asked my students, most of whom are not yet teaching, to answer four questions. Of the 152 students who responded, 45 were male and 107, female. Many of them ranged in age from 26 to 35. Reading through their responses, I found myself frequently moved to tears of pride at the marvelous things teachers in the past had done for these young people and occasionally moved to tears of shame at our failures. But everything—the positive and the negative—hinged not on programs but on the personal relationships between teacher and student.
      1. Why are you interested in becoming a teacher? Over 80 percent of the future teachers responding to this question gave one of the following reasons: a need to make a difference in a child's life, a love for working with kids, a desire to help children learn, a calling to share knowledge with kids, and a feeling that they could have a positive effect on the future by working with kids. For example, I have a goal—if I can "touch" just one student each year I teach, then I will feel I did something positive to inspire that student to continue learning.I hope my background as an athlete who had difficulties learning will give me insight into the problems of special students in adaptive physical education.
      2. What three adjectives describe the teacher you want to become? In responding to this question, the students used 55 adjectives, which I then put into five categories: concerned (adjectives such as caring, compassionate, and understanding); motivational (inspirational, encouraging, and enthusiastic); knowledgeable (effective, skilled, and professional); dedicated (responsible, disciplined, and consistent); and creative (innovative, flexible, and open-minded).
      One student used an example to describe the type of teacher he wants to be. Recently he had called the science teacher at a local middle school for help on a research paper. When he met her, his "personal vision was validated." This teacher's students had come to her concerned about an abandoned building that was covered with graffiti and strewn with garbage. Instead of telling these kids "that's not my problem," she worked with them to create a "Graffiti Grapplers" group and, in his words, showed "a beautiful example of the difference that each individual can make."
      3. Describe your most memorable teacher. About 120 students recalled a most memorable teacher in vivid terms. Over half remembered the teacher's name, and after many years, some even described how these favorite teachers looked. Thirty-one mentioned teachers in pre-K through 5th grade, 15 remembered outstanding middle-school teachers, 40 recalled teachers from high school, and 14 named college professors. The reasons for remembering these teachers differed, but invariably they had been living examples of the kinds of teachers the students themselves wanted to become: caring, motivational, knowledgeable, dedicated, and creative. "He always motivated me when I didn't think I could accomplish anything," said one student. "She made me feel that I was the only child in the room," wrote another. "She was a loving and kind woman who shared her interest in history with me," wrote another student about his favorite teacher. "She nourished my mind and encouraged me to major in history."
      Of the 30 who remembered a poor experience, the students mentioned teachers who were boring, unhelpful, short-tempered, unfamiliar with their subject, and unhappy. For example, a few told of being "embarrassed to read or speak aloud" because of a teacher's ethnic prejudice. In each case, however, a negative experience had had one positive influence on these future teachers: "When I become a teacher, I will not be like this."
      4. Describe your most memorable experience as a student that has influenced your decision to become a teacher. In their responses, the students reiterated the themes of concern, motivation, the need to share knowledge, dedication, and creativity. For example, I had many teachers who were kind, and just the way they taught gave me a feeling that I wanted to be a teacher like them.My professor was so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable—I came away from her class with much knowledge and enthusiasm of myown—I hope to have the same positive effect on my students.
      One student, who recalled growing up with abuse at home, wrote, "If it wasn't for that hug or pat on the back I received at school, I probably would not have succeeded." Wanting to help other children was at the heart of his desire to become a teacher.
      Another student remembered a tight situation during college. He had lost his apartment and needed a temporary place to live: The plan to live in my car vanished when I was in an accident that totaled my car. With no other recourse to continue at school, I decided to quit college. When I went to drop a class, one of my teachers asked why, then told me he had a truck with a camper on it that I could use.
      Despite our supposedly flawed educational system, these future educators remind us that wonderful teachers meet the needs of children every day. Although I am not so naive to think that excellent teachers can make all problems in education go away, I do believe that they can make a difference.
      Instead of asking what is wrong with the education system, I think that we should be asking, What is best for this child I teach? By teaching one child well, and another, and then another—we will help right the wrongs in education. Reflect on your first love: the children.

      Sandra Harris has written for Educational Leadership.

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