What Matters

I began my first teaching job in 1992 at a high school in Western Pennsylvania. The school was led by Mr. P, a hulking individual who would lift weights during lunch or when he was feeling stressed. As a principal, Mr. P had an attention to detail. He would interrupt the school day with announcements over the PA system with things he felt important in the moment.  “Pardon the interruption,” he would regularly announce. And then he’d discuss his current concerns.

“Teachers are reminded that students must have hall passes when they leave the classroom.”

“Students must not wear hats during the school day.”

“Students should remember to throw their trash in receptacles.”

Whether these announcements applied to the current state in anyone’s classroom, Mr. P would interrupt instruction to focus on something that mattered to him.

Over my three years in the school, Mr. P observed me teach several times. In each written observation, Mr. P focused on aspects of my classroom that I found strange. In one observation, Mr. P admonished me for letting a student sharpen a pencil without first asking permission. In another observation, Mr. P questioned me about my window blinds. He advised that window blinds should be pulled down to consistent heights to not distract student learning.

After each post-observation conference I had with Mr. P, I was dumbfounded by the seemingly trivial instructional aspects that mattered to him. His observations didn’t readily apply to my content knowledge or to the interactive lessons that I had designed. His comments didn’t reflect the classroom culture I was working to foster and didn’t acknowledge the supportive yet challenging environment that I was attempting to build. Across all of my interactions with Mr. P, it was clear that we saw the world very differently. The things that mattered to him as a principal didn’t really matter as much to me as a classroom teacher.

I was reminded of these experiences as I reflected on an article that appeared in Inside Higher Education last week. Titled Instructors, Please Wash Your Hair, the article outlined how the current remote teaching situation has created challenges for some colleagues. The author, Kristie Kiser, writes:

Your piles of unattended laundry are not trophies for the amount of time you are putting into your coursework. They are distractions, signs of disorganization and, quite frankly, unsightly and off-putting. Educators, please rethink your approach to your students. In these trying times, the last thing that they need to see is their adult, professional, highly educated instructor falling apart at the seams.

Kiser’s main point is that despite the pandemic and the hasty move online, educators “must endeavor to not be the generation that allowed its integrity to crumble as we caved to laziness, disorganization and unprofessionalism.” Professionalism seems to matter a lot to Kiser.

In my view, Kiser is a lot like my former principal. And like Mr. P, she and I see the world very differently. While she focuses on some distorted view of disorganization and unprofessionalism, I see creativity and innovation and a tireless devotion to education. I know colleagues who have built mini-recording studios in their homes. I’ve seen other colleagues who have fashioned recording devices out of Legos and old iPads. I’ve witnessed teachers who have taught synchronous classes with sleeping children in their arms. I know colleagues who are checking on students’ mental health regularly and others who have raised funds for students in need. In a world that is seemingly turned upside down with threats to the health and well-being of our students and their families, teachers are providing consistent support. When I think about how teachers are navigating this pandemic, I’m inspired by their work, by their dedication, by their resourcefulness and by their resilience.

Are some of my colleagues recording their lessons with baskets of laundry in the background? Are some recording lessons in yoga pants? Are some dealing with these challenges differently than others? Maybe. But none of that really matters to me. I know that they’re all doing the best they can to serve their students.

When I think about our challenges of today, I also think about how we’ll remember these times two or three years from now. Will our students remember the yoga pants? The laundry baskets? The sleeping child? The barking dog? The unkempt hair? I doubt it.

To gain perspective in times like this, I like to draw on a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And that’s what matters to me.


2 thoughts on “What Matters

  1. Or, maybe they will remember the yoga pants, the laundry baskets, the sleeping child, the barking dog, or the unkempt hair. And, in that, they will see teachers as a little more human. Besides, my students always remembered the classroom demonstrations that went a little sideways (OK, I got shocked, bruised, whatever) but these created memory hooks to attach the important ideas. Spring 2020 will be the semester of odd memories, but memories nonetheless.

    Thanks, as always, Ollie. Cheers

  2. Pingback: Top Posts of 2020 – Part 2 | The 8 Blog

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