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April 19, 2021

Teachers: Three Questions for Reflection

This is the time of year that I always start to feel a little harried, a little frayed at the edges. And even though I think I don’t have time for it, I know the best way to find my center again is a little self-reflection and quiet. Recently, someone posed these three questions to me and in them, I found a trail of breadcrumbs back to what’s most important. Perhaps your own busy selves will to be able to carve out a little time and space to reflect on these as well. And when you do, please share your responses with the rest of us in the discussion below.

What are the three things that make a successful teacher?

There are many qualities that come together in successful teachers, but here are three that I think you’ll find over and over again:

  • Passion: Great teachers are truly passionate about what they do. It isn’t just a job, but their life’s work.
  • Empathy: Incredibly important because on the other end of any lesson is a person, full of potential and complexity and humanity. We must always see the humanity in what we do and in who we’re doing it for.
  • Grit: Teaching is hard work. There has to be a tenacity in the day to day routine and a willingness to see past the routine and into the unique moments waiting to be realized.

What are the three things that make a successful learner?

Successful students probably aren’t that much different than successful teachers. Successful learners (which doesn’t always mean a successful student) are:

  • Intellectual risk-takers: Anyone who is a great learner must be willing to jump past what he or she is comfortable in knowing and be willing to try out new ideas and perspectives, no matter how uncomfortable they might be.
  • Gritty: Successful learners are just as gritty as strong teachers. They are willing to struggle through what they don’t understand until they “get it.” I often tell my students that if learning were easy then they’d only do what they already can, and would never get any better.
  • Curious: Successful learners have to be able to wonder, to be curious, to be open and not fixed.

And we have to find ways to cultivate these dispositions within our systems. (I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to do this in the comments section below.)

What has been the hardest thing you’ve faced as a teacher and how did you deal with it?

There have been many tough moments in my 16 years of teaching. I’ve lost students, I’ve said goodbye to them, I’ve mediated conferences where parents shame their kids, I’ve watched them lose and give poor performances, I’ve witnessed hundreds of break-ups, and ushered some through the ramifications of really bad choices. There isn’t one to top them all, because each painful moment is just that: painful. But that’s part of the reason we need teachers. Beautiful curriculums and inspired professional development don’t account for those moments, we do. I get through them by being human, by being a listener, by giving them a book or a poem or a song or quote that I think might speak to them, by sitting beside them and sometimes by walking with them.


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