Teacherscribe’s Teaching Tip #180
Here is my final personal statement from my WEM admission form –
Describe yourself as a teacher, part 1. Who and what are you as a teacher?
Everyday when I park my car across the street from my classroom, I imagine this scenario: Mr. Zutz, our principal, notifies every student at Lincoln High School that instead of reporting to their regular first block class, they are to go to the classroom where they feel the most valued, inspired, empowered, and challenged.
As I enter Lincoln High School, make my way up to my second floor classroom, and open my door, I ask myself this: Would I have anyone seated in my room?
My answer is simple: there better be a room full of kids. Otherwise, what am I doing here?
That reinforces my “why,” which is a concept I have honed since I watched Simon Sinek’s iconic TEDx Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Sinek believes leaders and organizations must address three basic issues to be successful: what, how, and why. Most leaders and organizations, however, address these in the wrong order. They start with what they do, then go on to how they do it, and probably never even realize (let alone effectively communicate) why they exist. As a result, they never resonate and impact their audience or customers.
Sinek’s concept applies to education. Schools and teachers often get their what, how, and why in the wrong order and, thus, fail to resonate and impact our students as much as we could. Educators have a great idea of what they do: Teachers equip students with the necessary skills to earn their degree, so they can be successful in the workforce and contribute to our democracy. Educators also know how they do it: Most teachers stand at the front of the class, controlling the assignments, and assigning a grade. Few, however, have any real idea about why they exist: The teachers I had joked about the three reasons they loved teaching: June, July, and August. Others sought to teach because it was the only path that enabled them to coach.
Sinek argues, though, that great leaders and organizations (and I believe great teachers) not only inverse the order, but they also clearly communicate their why, how, and what. I strive to illustrate my why, how, and what to my students every single day.
My why – I guide and inspire students to discover their elements. One of my favorite books to teach is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson. He defines the “element” as the point where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. Robinson argues that when you discover your “element,” you find purpose and meaning. Suddenly, work – if you are fortunate enough to find a job that involves your “element” – becomes like play. When you are in your element you are the best version of yourself because you are tapping into your strongest aptitudes and deepest passions.
I live for seeing students discover their element. Students often stop by, text, and email when they have finally found their element. Last summer I received a text from Wendy, a former student interning at a law firm. She informed me how she had just she witnessed a young female lawyer win a big case for a family. Wendy said while watching this young lawyer she knew she found her element because there was no one she wanted to be like in the world that this young lawyer. Wendy thanked me for encouraging her to follow her passion for family law while she read The Element in high school.
My how – I’m not just as a guide for my students, but I strive to be a co-learner right alongside of them. When doing my professional development, which includes attending and presenting at several conferences, like TIES, MCTE, NCTE, and our own district’s own Martin Luther King Digital Retreat, I share with my students my habits for preparation and applying what I learned to what we are do in class. Then while in class, I struggle through all the assignments with my students, modeling the skills I want them to attain. Recently, I was selected for a Teacher Appreciation banquet held by our senior football players. At the banquet each player explained why they selected their teacher and how they impacted them. When Derek, the young man who chose me, got up, one of the first things he said was, “Mr. Reynolds learns right a long with us. In fact, I think he learns as much from us just as we learn from him.” When I heard those words, I thought back to my how. I was ecstatic that Derek saw me as a co-learner.
My what – I don’t simply want to prepare students for college and a career. Instead, I want to help develop remarkable, life-long learners who have been, to borrow a term from Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, “future-proof,” for I want to help my students develop skills that allow them to adapt to any changes the future may hold. Several years ago, I received an email from Carli, a former student who was on the precipice of applying for the nursing program at UND. She informed me she had been struggling with writer’s block over a one page, personal statement, which was a requirement of the application for the program. She was emailing me, not to ask for help but to encourage me to keep inspiring students to find their voices. Carli wrote that she finally broke out of her funk when she sat down in her apartment and opened her old College Comp II folder, full of dozens of her high school essays. One essay in particular, a personal narrative on an expertise, caught her eye. Carli recalled how much fun she had writing it because I encouraged her to use her voice and style in the paper. I recalled her essay immediately. Carli’s expertise was on “being blonde.” She chose to write the essay in the same random-abstract, mile-a-minute way she talked. The entire essay was one long run-on sentence, but it perfectly illustrated Carli’s expertise. She displayed her wonderful personality with her amazing voice and style. In the email, Carli said she regained her confidence and attacked the one page, personal statement. She ended the email informing me that she had just received her letter of admission to the UND nursing program.