Any of us who have stayed in education for a couple of decades have probably seen ourselves change, maybe more than once. I look back on the 24 year old teacher I was when I started and am amazed at the catalog of things I didn’t know, the rocket powered energy I brought to every class, and the amount of hair on my head. A few years in, I was a different teacher, still passionate, still ready to try the unconventional, but a little wiser, and more polished at my craft. I changed again as a teacher after my wife and I had kids. Perspective, I suppose helped me plan carefully, anticipate how students might respond, and reach into a bag of tricks swollen with years of successes and failures.
Behind all of who I was as a teacher was my own experience as a student. The folks I look back on as formative, in middle school and high school, as well as college, taught me lessons about how to teach, how to care, and how to connect with students. I took Mr. Shinkle’s humor, Ms. Sarver’s passion, Mr. Gossack’s earnestness, and Coach Vellutini’s determination to heart. I was, at least when I started, components of them (with a dash of Dave, Diane, and George, a trio of influential professors from college). I was all of them, and I wasn’t.
Each year I taught, a baker’s dozen in total, I became a little less them and a little more me. It’s natural, I think, to mimic what has worked for us when we are young teachers. Fresh out of school ourselves, we can at least imitate grown ups, and steal the good stuff of what they did when we were on the other side of the desk.
As we teach, however, we find the things that work for us. If we’re open to experiment, and honest with ourselves, we fail, we learn, we grow, and we become our true teaching selves. We stand on the shoulders of giants, those who have come before us, who provide the foundation for what we will become. But we must separate ourselves from our academic heroes, if we are to come into our own as educators.
So where Mr. Shinkle taught to straight rows of desks, I favored tables, and a stage in class, and a rocking chair on the stage (and if a student asked, that rocking chair was her or his assigned seat).
Where Ms. Sarver taught the classics, I slid The Avengers, Rossum’s Universal Robots, and Frank Sinatra, next to Shakespeare and Toni Morrison. I once taught a unit on Muhammad Ali and The Iliad (“ALIliad,” I called it, reveling in the portmanteau).
While Mr. Gossack brought a wide eyed and law abiding attitude to everything he did in his classroom (at least in his early years of teaching; I’d be naive to imagine he didn’t change and grow as a teacher too), in my first year I was guilty of bringing “Goggle Day” to my school, with teachers literally wearing goggles and throwing pies at each other over the course of the school day. By my third year on the job I’d instituted “Pirate Week” as regular celebration on the calendar.
And while Coach V taught me the value of working hard and pursuing a goal, I found myself more contemplative as a teacher, encouraging students to think broadly and imagine a host of possibilities. (I realize that the word “contemplative” beneath a photo of me and a group of students all dressed like pirates seems contradictory, but I’m sticking to it; we all have different sides!)
I would not be who I am if it weren’t for those influential teachers from my formative years, but I would not be who I am if I had simply parroted them either.
I am extremely fortunate to have learned from so many good teachers, and one lesson I took away from each of the good ones was to be myself. As I work with students now, I hope they see in me someone who cares about who they are, who wants to support them as they learn, and wants to spark curiosity as they engage with the world around them. It’s what my favorite teachers did for me.