Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Teacher Contemplates New Year's Resolutions

Last spring I received an email from a student asking about some things we had discussed in class. At the end of the message she made a statement I was very surprised to see. She said “And some day I hope to be a better teacher than you!!” I leaned back in my chair, rolled my face upward and had a good, roaring laugh. “Well,” I thought, “at least somebody got it!”

I should explain. In class a couple of days before, I gave one of my stock challenges to my teacher candidates. It goes like this: It’s good to have role models. They get us started in our careers. But if you become only as good as the teacher who inspired you, you will not be good enough for the job of a teacher. Society becomes more complex and the challenges are greater every day. You have to aspire to be better than the best teacher you ever met. I have been in teaching for over 25 years. I have worked with teachers and teacher educators in a dozen other countries and I have developed educational materials that have been used by tens of thousands of students. But I see my obligation to Geneseo to be to prepare every teacher candidate to be a better teacher than I ever was.

From that email, I know at least one student got it.

Teaching is one of very few activities in which one might have such a goal. In business, when the management trainee becomes better than the manager, the trainee replaces the trainer. The manager has a stake in seeing that his or her charges don’t become better that he or she is. In sports, there have to be coaches, because athletes lose their jobs when the second stringers are better.

I think back on that wonderful email at this time of the year as I do my annual contemplation on leaving teaching. I was once taught a little goal-setting trick. If you want to discover the goals that really matter to you, decide what you would want people to say about you at your retirement party. I use the inevitability of retirement in a slightly different way. At the end of the calendar year I ask myself “Is it time to leave teaching?” (If I am going to leave, I have to let the Administration know well in advance so they can find a replacement.) Then I weigh out the pros and cons. This analysis leads me to make up my mind whether it is time to do something else. I know that time will come and when it does, I will go to the next phase of my life and not simply go out of teaching. I believe a serious teacher should face these questions once a year and plan accordingly. This creates meaningful resolutions.

In this analysis, I have to ask “What other options do I have?” Good teachers should always have career alternatives to teaching lined up. I know I have a couple of options available to me now and I am sure that a serious search would yield a few more. Options give the power of commitment to a teacher. When you walk to the front of the classroom, you should be able to say, “I could be doing X, or Y, or Z. I choose to be a teacher and be responsible for the development of these students.” Options equal power and job satisfaction.

One question I do not ask is “Do I still love teaching?” The question is moot. Even when the answer is yes, it only serves to cloud one’s judgment. Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time, loved baseball the day he died. But it was painful for Ruth’s fans watching him try to play out his last years. Babe loved the game, but he couldn’t play it any more. In my time I watched Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Franco Harris and other sports heroes who loved their games so much they couldn’t walk away when they were no longer effective.

So I face the questions that matter. Do I still have the energy and commitment to try to get better next year? (The challenge to become a better teacher than I am also applies to me and not just my students.) Can I offer my community more from my classroom than I could using my skills a different way? Are there better candidates, with newer skills and greater energy who could do better than I can with my experience and knowledge of the system?

And so I inventory my energy and commitment, reflect on serving my community, and think of the young lions who will replace me one day. But not today. I do still love teaching, even if the question is moot. Clear-headed, I make resolutions to get the skills that will keep me current and to change courses so I can manage them better. I actively keep options other than teaching open so if I teach, it is by choice and not a lack of alternatives. And I recommit myself to prepare the young lions, whose pursuit keeps me driven and who will one day serve as my legacy.

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