A Special Teacher? – Introduction

About ten to twelve years ago, when I was a middle school principal, I had an idea that we tried out one spring to highlight the great work that teachers do on a daily basis… I established a program titled “Teacher of the Week.”

The program itself was pretty simple.  Any person: student, parent, teacher, secretary, custodian…anyone, could nominate any teacher (as many times as they’d like) by completing a short form that required only three things: (1) The teacher’s name, (2) the reason that teacher was nominated, and (3) the name of the person making the nomination.  

At the end of each week, all of the positive feedback was typed (by me) and posted outside the main office in the hallway for all to see.  Over time, almost every teacher in the school received at least one nomination.  Some teachers, of course, had nomination forms come in on an almost daily basis. It must also be added that in the entire time, not one person submitted a form about a teacher that was negative in any way.  Every submitted comment about every teacher was positive.

The program didn’t last into the next school year, I don’t quite remember why, but while it lasted, the “Teacher of the Week” program allowed all members of the school community to share the very best aspects of individual teachers for all to see.  

Last week, I was cleaning my current office.  One of my favorite summer tasks is taking the time to reorganize myself as I prepare for the upcoming school year.  It’s been a somewhat quiet summer so I had a few hours to spend on organizing my paperwork and in going through old files.  As I did this, I came upon the old nomination forms from the “Teacher of the Week” program from all those years ago.  I had saved them as a memory of what good teaching looks like to middle school kids.

As I read over the positive comments, and reflected on the program. I realized that I possess a unique collection of artifacts.  This collection of forms spoke (and I would state still speaks) to what children admire most in their teachers.  These forms don’t highlight what researchers claim quality teaching looks like, rather, these contain the unfiltered words of students – words that came straight from their own hearts and minds.  

It’s not often that one has an unfiltered view into the minds of children – especially middle school kids.  What follows (as the first in a series of columns dedicated to this topic) are a collection of comments from children about their teachers.  I have changed the teacher’s names for privacy reasons and have never included a child’s name.  (It is amazing to think that today these children are in their mid-to-late 20’s.) (Where does the time go?)

I believe that we can learn a great deal by listening to the feedback from children. Children are our “clients.”  Adults can always learn a great deal by listening to the children in their lives.  We don’t listen to children enough.  Students might be the most untapped and most valuable resource in every school.

This exercise reminds me that we all must listen to children, and consider what they say about our teaching, our affect, our classrooms, and our schools.  We should listen to children as often as we can.  

I have copied each form word-for-word and kept spelling and other grammar mistakes. These are transcribed exactly how each student wrote the form, except where I added words (in parenthesis) for clarity. I also deleted identifying characteristics such as grade levels, subjects taught, and extra-curricular activities when transcribing the comments.

For this installment, I did not include any repeat nominations for any teacher.  Each of these comments was for a different staff member.  I also did not list the nominations from ever staff member. 

This installment serves as a preliminary overview of comments about individual teachers from the students of a school in the early 21st century.

I think there is a lot to learn here…

***

SAMPLE FORM OUTLINE:

Name of Teacher:

I am nominating this teacher because:

Nomination Made By:

***

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she is always willing to help and teach things in private to one kid.  And because she is so fun and caring when you don’t feel good.”

I am nominating Mrs. Audi because all her work and she is very, very, very…(the child wrote “very” 14 times) nice.”

We are nominating Mr. Alda because he is really easy to relate to and really easy to talk to.  We love him and hes the most amazing gym teacher ever.”

“I am nominating Mr. McDougall because he is always helping and encouraging me even though he’s not my teacher.”

“I am nominating Mr. Stokes because he is a great homebase teacher, someone who understands you and he has fun while being serious.”

“I am nominating Ms. Keating because (she) is a good teacher.  (She) helps me when I need help.  She’s a good friend.  I love her.  (She) helps me when I need advice.”

“I am nominating Mr. Norton because he was really nice during (an extra-curricular activity).”

“I am nominating Mr. Caldwell because he has helped me improve on my talents.”

“I am nominating Ms. Brown because she makes class alot of fun and is good at explaining things to us.”

“I am nominating Mr. Balboa because he is nice and cool.”

“I am nominating Mrs. LaValliere for being a great teacher.”

“I am nominating Mr. Tytell because even though I don’t always do well in his class, I know he still believes in me and know if I work to my potential I can do anything.”

“I am nominating Mr. Brook because he shows me much respect.”

“I am nominating Mr. Rizzuto because he helped us sound out a word and looked it up for us.”

“I am nominating Mrs. Harrington because she is a good teachers and also her birthday was this week.”

“I am nominating Mr. Kostya because I love her.  (She) makes me laugh.”

“I am nominating Mr. Konijn because he has always been there for me.”

“I am nominating Mrs. Remnick because she listens to me.  I can say anything to her.”

(And finally, for this installment)…

“I am nominating Ms. Pencroft because she’s great, very kind, and always cheers me up!”

***

Although this series is just getting started, I believe there is a great deal for all educators to learn just by reading and carefully considering the messages shared by the students above.

We must ask ourselves,What is it that really makes a teacher special?”

For the answer, we should ask a child.  

The child will know.

 

 

 

 

 

Water

(Last week, I returned home from a rigorous backpacking adventure with eight Boy Scouts and three adult leaders at Philmont Scout Reservation in the mountains of New Mexico.  Philmont provides the ultimate in scouting experiences.  The challenges are many.  The mountains are high.  The dangers and life experiences are real.  A crew is put out on a trail and expected to backpack, camp, cook, and hike over a trek of many miles (this year we went over 90 miles)in about 11 days. 

At Philmont, boys become men as they battle self-doubt and overcome challenges they never even imagined.  The leaders also grow in profound ways as they encounter heir own challenges leading a group of scouts and facing their own physical limitations and apprehensions .  It is said that one doesn’t return from Philmont the same as when he left.  I think that is true.

I wrote the first draft of the following passage in 2013 after my first Philmont experience.  My youngest son and I decided to go back in 2016 to once again face the hills and delight in the wilderness and mountains and to confront the hardships and difficulties that are at the heart of every Philmont experience.  I will be crafting subsequent blog posts about our most recent experiences in those majestic mountains…

For now, though, the following is a reflection from my first experience at Philmont. )

Let me begin that by saying that although I hiked over 81 miles in tough terrain, on steep hills, in valleys, over mountains, and along canyon walls, for hours upon hours each day, all with a fifty pound pack on my back… I am not really a hiker. 

And, although I set-up a tent daily, and slept in the tent (only to have to take it down, package it and carry it for hours on end, and repeat the process for eleven nights)…I am not truly a camper. 

I lived in the outdoors for an extended period…but I am not an outdoorsman. 

Experiencing Philmont gave me an opportunity to step way out of my comfort zone.  I’m glad I did it.  I was especially fortunate to experience this challenge with all three of my sons. 

One of my sons is already in college.  Another will head off next year.  These are the times our lives when we can make time to be together.  Part of the magic of Philmont was experiencing it with my children.  It was a moment in time that we might never replicate again. 

I loved many aspects of this summer adventure; most of all leading and providing this fantastic opportunity to a group of boys, including my sons.  But, I am in no rush to ever go back.

Will I camp again?  Yes.  Will I hike again?  Yes.  Will I ever go on an extended trip like that again?  Probably not…unless the troop needs me.  (I hope they don’t ever need me…) (Note – they needed me – that was another reason we went back in 2016.)

But, it was an experience – and a great experience at that.  I am proud that I did it.  I am proud that my crew did it.  We prepared them well.  The scouts had the necessary focus, dedication, perseverance, and toughness to get through it.  They were a true team of young men – all who supported and encouraged each other. 

And let me say, from someone who enjoys running stupid distances (I am a marathoner after all), this wasn’t easy.  Philmont pushed me to my physical limits.  It would be difficult to call what I did a “vacation,” but it was amazing.

I learned a lot out there in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico.  One of the most important lessons I learned about was something I already knew,  but didn’t truly understand because I had never really lived it before. 

I learned the true value of appreciating what we have. 

Truly appreciating what we have.

I learned to appreciate my bed.  I never realized how much I love my pillows.  I learned to cherish clean clothes.  I never knew how wonderful a change of clothes could be.  (Clothes are heavy.  Two weeks of clothes are extremely heavy.  No hiker carries that much clothing.  This means there are days (on end) when we wore the same clothes including the same underwear.  It’s not particularly fun. 

I learned to appreciate soap more than one might imagine. 

I learned to do without a lot of life’s conveniences.  We were in the back woods.  Except for what we carried, there were none of the conveniences from home.  We lived on, off, and with the land. 

We were provided with food.  There were scheduled food pick-ups which gave us the sustenance we’d need for a period of time before the next food pick-up.  We had to then carry the food we would consume.  We would also need to carry our own water.

Water is heavy.  Lots of water is very heavy.  You just can’t carry a lot of water (along with everything else).  Most people carried no more than three or four liters of water at any time.  Sometimes this water had to last for quite a while.

At one point, about nine days into our trek, we had a particularly long day of hiking.  This also happened to be one of the hottest days we encountered.  Our day began at a trail camp (that’s a camp with no staff…we just set up our camp site and were on our own).  There was no clean running water at that site.  The water we had had to last us all night and all of the next day.  In preparation for this, we filled up as much as we could at the previous camp site. 

As that ninth day raged on, and we drank, we all started to become dangerously short of water.  Some boys were down to less than half a liter.  It was hot, we had a lot of hiking to complete (at least two more hours), and there were no camps with any water in our path.  In an emergency, we had micro-pure tablets that would allow us to purify unclean water from streams or other non-potable sources, but this was a process that would take at least thirty minutes for each liter of water.  Alas! The map also didn’t seem to indicate any upcoming streams or lakes on our trail.  Water was in short supply and there seemed little chance, in the immediacy, of getting more. 

Let me pause to take a step back – on most days, we would hike for about 20 to 30 minutes before taking short (less than five minutes) water breaks.  These short breaks were necessary- especially when attempting to hike for an entire day.  These breaks became treasured respites.  They were opportunities to rest the body (while standing), to wipe one’s brow, to re-adjust the albatrosses on our backs, and to enjoy the taste of clean water.  In order to drink, someone would grab our water bottle for us since they were strapped to our packs and were most often unreachable on our backs.  This teamwork made for a strong bond of friendship and understanding.  The sharing of water exemplified true teamwork and solidarity.  We were in this together and we helped one another.

I love iced tea.  I love Pepsi.  I love all sorts of flavored drinks.  Yet, nothing ever tasted better than water at those breaks.  The water wasn’t cold, in fact, most often it was lukewarm, but it was refreshing.  It was our sustenance.  And it was treasured.

On the particular day that we were hiking, as water became in shorter supply, it became my particular focus.  I knew the boys would need water, soon, or we could find ourselves in plenty of trouble. 

Of all the things in our lives, water became the most important.

Because of the situation we were in, our values changed.  Because of a true need, the thing we wanted the most was something that we take for granted almost every single day of our lives.  Water.  Not cold water with an ice cube.  Water.  Plan water. 

We needed something to drink. 

The situation changed our perspective.  The possible danger we faced made us appreciate something that we might never have really ever thought about before.  The situation made us value one the most basic of life’s elements. 

In those moments, we did not think about who had the most expensive tent or the best hiking boots.  The adults didn’t think about our jobs or salaries.  The boys didn’t think about the colleges they wished to attend or their high school grades.  SAT scores mattered not at all.  None of talked about the best cars or the coolest new computer game.  In the big picture of life, those things didn’t matter.

We needed to find water.

This need made our focus shift.  We knew that we might have to share the limited resources we had.  We were all willing to do that.  We learned that friendship and trust are some of the most valuable gifts we can share.  Generosity too.  It is great to be generous when one has abundance; it is greater to be give when one’s supply of a most basic element for survival is dwindling..

Now the story, of course, has a happy ending.  About thirty minutes later, we came upon a small stream.  We took a long break there to shed our packs, fill our bottles, use the purification tablets, and create water that was potable.  We were able to fill our bottles with enough drinkable water to get us to the next clean water supply later that day.

Over the course of the two weeks, there were a number of times we overcame some difficult struggles and found true relief…this was but one of them. 

But as we waited, and hoped, for water, I began to gain a better appreciation for the simpler things in life.  I began to really consider other things that I always valued, but didn’t always consider – and truly don’t always appreciate. 

I thought of the special relationships that I have with my sons.  I thought of the love I share with my wonderful wife.  I considered my parents and my entire family.  I appreciated my job, even with the stresses and worries that come with positions of responsibility.  None of the negative aspects in life mattered. 

When one has the opportunity to begin to appreciate, all of life, somehow, becomes good.  It’s a strange and wonderful and magical reality.  Appreciation brings with it many gifts.  This is but one of them. 

In short, I learned to truly consider and appreciate all of the little things:  support, kindness, companionship, friendship, and love.  Because of my need for water, I learned to see beyond the mundane realities of modern life. 

The need for water allowed me to learn the true meaning of appreciation.

I hope it’s a lesson I never forget.