Good morning. What a week! I’ve been feeling off balance these last few days, like I’m in a time warp. My body told me this morning it was 4:30 a.m. while the clock read 3:30 a.m. I hate it when people start messing with Mother Nature. They just can’t patiently wait for the smooth, natural daily two to three minute shift in light. No, they had to take a big jump this weekend. It is so doggone strange. Such an apparent astronomical jolt throws me out of sync while all of nature around us goes about its natural business. So, because of this fiddling with time from the times of World War II sixty years ago, I went walking forward this morning while time marched backward.
On my walk, I was thinking about a batch of messages I was receiving. There must be an education class at the University of West Georgia whose students are sending out requests for advice about their future profession. I suspect that they are doing so as a class assignment or at least at the recommendation of their professor. It’s a neat idea. If nothing else, it gets us veterans thinking. At least, it got me thinking, really thinking.
I noticed that almost all of the questions posed by these future teachers focused on “What should I do?” and “What should I know?” None ask the all important question, the visceral question, “Who should I be?” It’s expected. So many of us think that information about subject and method is the source of being an effective teacher. These students will go to school for years to acquire enough information on how to teach with the hope and expectation that the information will lead to their success in teaching. Likewise, they throw out their questions believing that experience equally will lead to their future effectiveness.
I would suggest to each of these students, as well as each of us, that he or she already has in his or her hands the means to becoming a successful teacher. During the last decade, I have found that everything in teaching rests ultimately on principles. The greatest rewards, the greatest sense of fulfillment, the greatest achievements, the greatest success, and the greatest joy do not come just good intentions, just from information, just from method, even just from experience, or even just from great intellect or personality. They don’t offer a bedrock on which your teaching rests. They don’t form a pattern that will determine how you teach. Effective teaching comes as a result of developing simple and ordinary qualities, basic “truths,” fundamental bedrock. These principles are not about knowing or doing; they are about being. They are about accessing the power that lies within each of us. It is what you think in your heart, not your head, that you will be.
The journey I have taken works for me. The simple principles I discovered over the past decade have altered the course of my life, have changed my attitude towards my profession, have taken me down a path to peace and joy and contentment and fulfillment. They have slowly come to be my foundation. They have revealed that I am in the place I was meant to be. And they have taken me where mere knowledge and experience and personality and talent have not and cannot.
So, here are my principles for these aspiring students to consider.
First: live today. Don’t concentrate on the debilitating, painful, and burdensome heartaches of yesterday’s “could’ves, should’ves and would’ves.” Don’t focus on the hesitating “what ifs” of tomorrow. Don’t waste your precious today worrying about the unknown tomorrow that is yet to be or mourning the yesterday that is done and gone. Live only this day, focused on this hour, waste not a minute. It truly is all you’ve got. I discovered that as I slowly and arduously stopped being drained by the pull of yesterday and stopped piling up my concerns about what increasingly seemed an impossible heap of the what has to be accomplished, the challenges to be met, the difficulties to be overcome, I became more authentic, less wasteful, less distracted, more relaxed, more confident, and more concentrated on what was clearly at hand. And you know what? You can teach for one day. For one day, you can be sweet, patient, caring, loving, hopeful, faithful, and believing. Anyone can. And that is all teaching is about: teaching in the daylight of today, not the darkness of yesterday or the dim light of a tomorrow that may never come. Make today count. Don’t miss where you’re standing by looking back over your shoulder or ahead to some vague horizon.
Second: separate yourself from the flock. You are not a sheep. You are unique. If you want to be in control of yourself and your destiny, if you want to be independent, if you want to become who you are capable of becoming, if you want to do what you are capable of doing, don’t let what others do and think and say control what you do and think and say. You must be you own person, be truly different, stand out, stand alone, be unique, be authentic. Don’t let anyone turn off your switch. So many of us so easily let others turn off our switch with their put downs, harsh criticism, and ridicule. Slights, scorns, insults can hurt if you let them. They can diminish your self-confidence and self-esteem if you let them. They can stop you dead in your tracks only if you let them. Don’t give anyone the permission to rain on you and rainout your game. Just smile, open your umbrella, walk away, and walk on.
Third: do whatever it takes. Go the extra mile every chance you get today. Go two miles if someone asks you to go one. Give someone two minutes if they ask you for one. Each day resolve to do more for each student then asked without consideration of extra pay, a pat on the back, some medal or piece of parchment. The one key to turning today into a glorious success is to give a little bit more of yourself than asked or expected to each student, give a little more time and effort, caring and understanding, patience and helping, believing and hoping. Always render more to each student, always better serve each student, and you will be paid for more than you expect. You will be richer by the amount you give and poorer by the amount you hoard for yourself.
Fourth: don’t ever cut corners. Don’t ever ignore the little things. Don’t rush through the day. Don’t teach hastily. Don’t be careless to detail. Don’t go unprepared. Those corners will wreak havoc with your teaching and with the students’ learning. However small a task may be, treat it as something important. Doing otherwise can hurt your teaching and a student. It can turn potential success into failure. It can change a potential find into a loss. It can tightly close an opening.
Fifth: don’t hide. Don’t hide from challenge and opportunity behind the walls of “I’m too busy,” “I don’t have the time,” “It’s not me.” You are not too busy for a student. You do have the time to help a student. It can be you. Just stop hiding behind a stack of files, folders, papers, and projects.
My five principles are really simple to state; they are not simple ones. There is, however, enough power in them, if acted upon and worked at and implemented each day one day at a time, one person at a time, to put a glow in your teaching.
Live and teach today
Stand away from the pack
Go the extra mile
Don’t cut corners and neglect the little things
These principles are not icebreaking, occasional acts. They are habits. Choose to make them habits of your heart, you will see farther than the eye can see and believe deeper than the mind can conceive. Weave them together like a coaxial cable until it is so strong it cannot be broken. Review them each morning and work to apply them more and more each day. Rest everything you know and do on them more and more each day. The more you build your teaching on these principles, the brighter your days will be, the brighter those around you will be, the more resilent you will be, the stronger you will be, the higher your highs will be, truer you will be, the straighter your road will be, the greater your teaching will be.
Follow these five principles and you will never do anything that you will look back on with regret. You will keep your self-respect, honor yourself as a person, to honor those around you as persons. You will place a moral core at your center so that in your worse times you are at your best.
Here are some lines from Emily Dickinson that guide my teaching and which should guide yours:
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life of aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not have lived in vain.
Learn these lines, profess these lines, and live these lines, and your teaching will be a confession of your teaching.
Make it a good day.