I am an educator. I spent 28 years inside the walls of North Carroll High School and then another four at Westminster High School. To reflect back on my career, I can see that the nuts and bolts of education, the color of the walls, the terminology we use changes over time; however, the core of what we do remains constant. The heart and soul of what happens in a school has stayed true for decades.
First and foremost is the reality that the content we teach is secondary to the relationships we forge. True, most of us become teachers because we love what we teach, whether it is English, music, science, you name it. And teaching that content is how we are evaluated. Lesson plans, classroom management, Student Learning Outcomes all go into the formula that determines if we are “effective” or not. But as one of my principals recently said to me, 10 years from now our students aren’t going to remember the lessons we taught, they will remember how we made them feel as people. Our students carry with them positive or negative associations with the adults in a school, and consequently, their feelings for education. We say we want our students to become “lifelong learners,” but that can only happen through relationship and motivation.
Those of us who are educators know that a school is a lot like a pressure cooker. The dynamics and intensity are hard to put into words. You are simultaneously teaching a lesson, nurturing a foundering young adult, and putting out 10 fires, all while hoping an administrator doesn’t poke his or her head in the door to witness the chaos. Then repeat the whole process several times throughout the day. I forgot to mention the revolving door of requests to use the restroom or monitoring the halls between classes. Thank goodness Carroll County finally decided to get serious about restricting cell phones, and I’m not even going to talk about distance learning! Despite the stress and demands of school, most students keep a positive attitude. This year, my seniors started bringing in their elementary and middle school yearbooks to reminisce, long before the COVID-19 closings. Not only was it fun to see pictures of them as young kids, it was heartwarming to hear them tell stories about each other and their other friends when life was simpler.
School is a second home for many students. They often spend more waking hours in school than where they live. The sad truth is for some school is where they feel at home, where they feel safest. We have students who would much rather hang out in the lobby or library than go home. Years ago we had a student who committed a heinous crime. He came to school to turn himself in because the only adults he trusted were at North Carroll. The climate and culture of a school shape the lives of young people in ways we don’t imagine. Many of us have the experience of running into a former student, the last person in the world you would expect, who thanks you for something you may not even remember. One young man I taught was considered by most to be a total mess, a loser. I remember one day he decided to pierce his own lip with a safety pin in class. Several years later I saw him at Carroll Community College. He had joined the Navy and turned his life around. He said to me, “Please tell the people at North Carroll I got my act together.”
The most important lesson I have learned in my time in the classroom is to never write someone off. With few exceptions, young people figure it out. It takes some longer than others, myself included, but they grow up and mature. Kindness goes a long way in nurturing young minds and developing character.
I have always believed in second chances and giving the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, whenever I had to discipline a student I made clear that it was never personal. We all need boundaries, a clear distinction between what is appropriate and what is not. We might not know how to do quadratic equations or be able to recite a Shakespearean sonnet, but do we know the difference between right and wrong? Can we disagree without being disagreeable?
Being able to listen and being compassionate are the lessons that make us better people. These are the lessons that will build a more positive society.
Tom Scanlan writes from Westminster. Reach him at email@example.com.
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