Atticus and the Dentist

First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” -To Kill a Mockingbird

A lifetime ago I coached high school football, working with the offensive line for a head coach who was also a dentist. The head coach loved the game and, a father himself, was fair, firm, and generous with the boys on the team. His staff, mostly made up of young teachers like me, appreciated his commitment to the program, and shared his passion for helping mold the positive character of young men.

At the end of the season, when we all gathered together for the awards dinner, I remember the playful banter between the head coach and a young teacher in his first year of working with the freshman football team. “Maybe you could read them the Gettysburg Address,” the head coach joshed, kidding the teacher about his halftime pep talks. Without missing a beat the young coach shot back: “Hey, I don’t tell you how to floss!”

That line has stuck with me for more than twenty years.

I think it resonates with me because, as an educator, and one who has always embraced taking chances and trying new things, I realize that the job I do inspires lots of opinions.

Every parent has been to school, and while I know it’s not a winning proposition to try to explain that education looks a lot different than it did three of four decades ago, when I hear criticism of teachers and schools I think back on the beautifully brash response to the dentist.

It’s not that I want to blindly support every choice that happens in a classroom, nor do I allow myself to lean too much on the crutch that teaching is a tough job. Of course teaching is difficult; if it weren’t, the overwhelming majority of parents and students wouldn’t appreciate teachers with the justified passion that they do.

Want to see someone’s eyes light up? Ask her who her favorite teacher was.

But teaching isn’t straightforward, it’s a fluid enterprise filled with highlights and some bellyflops. Sometimes in the same class period. In that way it’s like parenting. Well, like parenting thirty-five kids all at once, and trying to help them love/appreciate/read Harper Lee while sitting in a room filled with potential dates to the winter formal.

I welcome discussion of what we do as teachers. I love hearing from students what works for them, and strive to empower kids to be able to articulate why they’re learning what they’re learning and how they learn it best.

I love conversations with parents, and love even more the rich conversations parents have with teachers. More often than not both teacher and parent leave a true conversation renewed, with a better understanding about how best to help promote a student’s learning. I’ve seen meaningful discussion take place in forums as diverse as a coffee with the principal, when teachers came as guests, and a book club at school that saw teachers and parents side by side discussing how best we learn. More often, I hear about the conversations that happen between teachers and parents, perhaps sparked by a concern about a grade or an assignment, that blossom into something positive that builds an understanding and relationship between two adults working toward the same end: helping a student learn.

But I bristle when I hear criticism that is cruel or misinformed, when incomplete information fills the fuel tank of discourse and the engine coughs and belches smoke. That’s when that line from Harper Lee comes to my mind, when Atticus teaches Scout that simple trick of empathy. And I try to understand the emotion behind the vitriol.

The other side of the critical coin is the thoughtful reflection I see teachers bring to their own practice. This happens far more often than many outside of education imagine, as teachers collaborate around strategies to help kids, share best practices, and work together to support each other (a pinch of wisdom from a veteran, a splash of passion from a rookie, and the steady stir of time together talking about the art of teaching).

Are we perfect? No. Few things in life are, and if we’re not willing to take chances and try approaches that are new and different, then we would never inspire anything beyond the ordinary.

I applaud teachers who pursue the extraordinary. I celebrate those who recognize that the work they do with students is magical and difficult and profound. I admire all in that huge number of teachers I know who are their own most thoughtful critics, the ones who keep their heads, and do an even better job than me of remembering the words of Atticus Finch, not just a decades old response from a teacher to a dentist.

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