A quick scan of the daily news these days will typically feature two things about teaching. First, there are teacher shortages across America as educators seem to be abandoning the field like investors dropping virtual currency. Second, you’ll inevitably find mea culpas from teachers who have recently quit talking about the mounting and daunting challenges facing modern educators. It’s true enough. Teachers are now required to be part mentor, part doctor, part counselor, part parent, part friend, part disciplinarian, and part statistician, all while adjusting and modifying curricula to account for ever more varied learning styles and disabilities for the most diverse group of students ever served by the American education system.
No problem, right?
As with all things, there are plenty of reasons to quit, plenty of reasons to fail, and like I’ve told my students for years, you don’t even have to explain those things. The reason they make movies about people who overcome incredible odds to be successful is because those cases are rare. They involve exceptional people doing exceptional things, but we don’t often see movies made about exceptional teachers. People leaving the field is headline news, but those who stay seem to be less interesting. Those who stay have found a purpose, a “why,” and that’s what keeps us coming back day after day to face the aforementioned challenges head-on.
Use The Force, Luke!
The most popular stories throughout the world all fall under the same literary category. It’s called the hero’s journey, and it applies to Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Katniss Everdeen, Frodo Baggins, heck even Jesus of Nazareth. We are inspired by people who have overcome great obstacles, survived great tragedies, and lived to fight another day. Teachers can also fill this role for students, and the need for us to do so is greater than ever. Our “why,” or why we teach, is what keeps us coming back, and it’s something we should share with our students.
Letting a student know you care about them, you’re interested in their interests and you’re there when they need to talk opens a magical door into a different world. In that world, education becomes relevant, learning becomes fun and we have what is being called “immediacy” in educational parlance. When students feel their teachers are relatable and accessible it creates a cohesive environment for The Force to flow and magic to happen. The classroom becomes a safe space where all of the issues that can derail a lesson begin to melt away, a place that is conducive for all learners.
Beware the Dark Side!
Achieving immediacy sounds easy enough, but make no mistake, it’s a challenge. Teachers still have a rigorous schedule of curriculum to cover in preparing for the next standardized test. We can also fall into one of the quick and easy archetypes that often lead to failure. The popular teacher, for example, builds relationships easily but might struggle to enforce necessary boundaries. The apathetic teacher, on the other hand, has allowed the many changes and additional responsibilities that come along with the job to burn them out. The shy teacher may have a strong command of the subject matter, but struggles to build relationships and is just as susceptible to failure as an apathetic counterpart. Finally, there’s the oh-so-strict teacher, who has a “my way or the highway” mentality and runs class like a drill sergeant. Falling into one of these roles leads to the Dark Side. What’s needed is a delicate balance of setting boundaries, building relationships, owning your subject and keeping the constant changes and duties in perspective.
“We had each other. That’s how we won.” – Lando Calrissian
There is another critical factor in this complicated equation, and it cannot be overvalued. For a campus to be successful there has to be an environment of cooperation and teamwork, with everyone pulling their share of the load. The administration has to set that tone in a positive and motivational way, but also must hold everyone equally accountable. Teachers have to take their responsibilities to the school as seriously as they take their responsibilities to their students. Under such circumstances, where everyone feels safe, supported and set up for success, amazing things can happen. Teachers don’t want to quit in those environments. Teachers want to quit when the environment is toxic, they forget their “why” and they allow the Dark Side to dominate their destiny.
In those situations, the students are the biggest casualties.