Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Word for Teachers for a New School Year

A local superintendent invited me to speak to his faculty and staff as part of their personal/professional development on their first day back for the new school year.  He told me their word for the year was believe—believe in the students so that they might believe in themselves and improve themselves this year.  I was honored to be asked.  I had never done anything like this in my life, so I was a little nervous about too.  Anyway, some of the listeners found it encouraging, so I am posting here for any other teachers who might benefit from this as well.  It’s much longer than my typical blog (the superintendent told me to speak for 20 minutes).  But you can decide in a few paragraphs if it’s worth your time.


Mary Ann Bird, a little girl from Massachusetts, was born with a cleft palate.  She was constantly teased and taunted in ways that made it clear to her how she must look to other children—misshapen lip, lopsided teeth, crooked nose, and garbled speech.  She was ashamed and often lied about her condition.  She wanted people to think it was caused by an accident rather than believe she was born this way.  By the age of seven, Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside her family could ever love her or even like her.

Then she entered second grade and Mrs. Leonard's class.  Everyone adored Mrs. Leonard, even Mary Ann.

In those days hearing tests were given in school.  Mary Ann was barely able to hear out of one ear.  She could not bear to reveal yet another problem that would single her out as different from everyone else, so she cheated.  As the teacher conducted the test, Mary Ann would sneak a peek at the other children and when she saw them raising their hands, she raised hers too.  But she couldn't escape being singled out in the whisper test where each child had to go to the door of the room, turn sideways, and block one ear with a finger.  The teacher would then whisper something like, "The sky is blue," or "Do you have new shoes?" and the child would have to repeat it.

Mary Ann dreaded this test.  As one by one the students in front of her made their trip to the door for the test, Mary Ann grew increasingly anxious.  She held onto her desk until her knuckles turned white.  But her turn finally came.  She just knew she would be found out.  Anticipating her shame she walked on up and stood at the door.  She pretended to block her good ear, hoping that nobody would notice.  And as she stood there, petrified by her fear, Mrs. Leonard softly whispered, "I wish you were my little girl."[1]

Mary Ann Bird called those words “the seven words that changed my life forever.”  Those words didn’t come from a parent.  They didn’t come from a preacher.  They didn’t come from a friend.  The seven words that changed her life forever came from a teacher—a teacher who chose to believe in a student that most others had written off.

You teachers can have a powerful impact in the life of your students.  Your belief in them, your encouragement in their lives, can change their lives in significant ways—from “I can’t” students to “I can” students; from “who cares?” students to “I care” students; from “I can’t wait to get out of school” students to “I can’t wait to embrace my future” students.

Teachers who believed in me and encouraged me made impact in my life I remember to this day.

I still remember my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Dennis, pulling me aside one day and saying, “John, I think you’re going places—you have a really good attitude.”  As a kid from a broken home, I was insecure and lacked confidence, and her words gave me life.  That was 1966, some 48 years ago.  I don’t remember anything else she said that school year, but I remember those words to this day.  She believed in me.

I remember in 6th grade when Mr. Needham asked me to be the first captain of the first ever Safety Patrol at the crosswalks at Branson Elementary School.  He saw something in me I never saw in myself: leadership potential.  Sadly, I got tired of being teased for wearing my shoulder belt and my badge, and after about three months, I quit.  I still remember the astonished look on his face and the first words he said to me, “I’m stunned.”  He believed in me, and I let him down.  He did his part: he believed in me.  I failed in my part—not because I couldn’t lead but because I wouldn’t lead.  As you teachers and coaches already know, you’ll believe in some kids that will let you down.  But please don’t stop believing in kids. 

I remember Miss Kinsinger asking me to give the speech at my 8th-grade graduation.  I wasn’t close to being valedictorian.  I wasn’t really a class leader, but I guess she saw something in me and assigned me that task.  It went well.  I received much encouragement.  That would be my first taste of public speaking.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up making a career of public speaking as a pastor.  She believed in me.

I remember Roy Gertson asking me to write for my high school paper.  I had never written anything except a few thank you notes after Christmas and a few letters to my dad.  But he saw some potential in me, asked me to write for the paper, and I’ve been writing this and that ever since.  He believed in me.

I remember my senior year, my first year to take “chorus” (I thought it would be easy—no homework) when Mr. Shurtz asked me to sing a solo for district contest.  I could carry a tune but it never occurred to me to sing a solo.  But he saw that capacity in me.  He worked with me after school a few times, got me ready, and I sang a solo for contest.  And more than 40 years later I still remember some of one of the songs I sang: “You can’t take it with you, Brother Will, Brother John, you can’t take it with you when you die.”  That experience gave me courage to sing more solos in the future in church and to my girlfriend with my guitar.  He believed in me.

And I remember Coach Russell.  It was my senior year.  I was on the track team for a school that didn’t even have a track.  But we practiced in an open field and on the lakefront—where the Branson Landing is now.  I was in one of those situations as a kid where if I didn’t work I didn’t have any money, so I tried to balance work and track.  I couldn’t practice every day.  Didn’t have the discipline or time to run much on my own.  But my boss let me off for meets.  I remember one of those meets.  I ran the 880 and a leg in the 2-mile relay.  The 2-mile relay was one of the first events.  I was nervous.  I knew I wasn’t ready, wasn’t in my best running shape.  I got the baton second, and we were in second place.  I took off and actually felt really good.  By the end of the first lap I caught and passed the runner in first place.  I opened up a 15 yard lead or so on him and maintained that lead till the last turn home.  Suddenly, my legs felt like lead, my lungs were on fire, my pulse was pounding like a bass drum in my head, and I hit the wall.  I finished, but the second place runner just went racing by me at the end.  I stumbled out into the infield and puked out everything I had eaten that day.  I was discouraged.  I so wanted to win.  Coach Russell found me after the race.  He was smiling.  I thought it was because I was puking and he could say, “See, when you don’t practice every day, this is what happens.”  But you know what he said?  He said, “McCallum, you just ran the best time you ever ran in your life.  I’m proud of you, boy.”  He believed in me.

And Coach Russell helped me realize that while I didn’t win the race, I won my race.  I did the best I could under my circumstances.  That’s helped me keep perspective on many things throughout my life.  And it’s helped me help others do the same.

And maybe that’s one thing you can do for your students and your athletes this school-year.  Encourage them to run their race and win their race.  Notice their potential.  And do whatever you can to help them see it too.  Believe in your students so that they might believe in themselves.

And you know how that works.  Every teacher I’ve known, whether they would admit it or not, have their favorite students.  They just like some kids better than others: maybe it’s chemistry, maybe the teacher knows the family, maybe it’s the kids’ talents, maybe the kid is fun to have in class and be around—I don’t know.  But you know.  And you also know that it’s pretty easy to believe in kids like that, to encourage kids like that, to invest a little more time in kids like that.  And there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s human nature, that’s life. 

But here’s the deal about kids like that.  They are kids that most everybody believes in.  They probably benefit from strong parental love and encouragement.  Other teachers love them too.  Some of them are part of churches that love them.  They’ve likely enjoyed some successes along the way in school or sports or music.  They are easy to believe in because they’ve proved themselves over and over.  Keep on believing in these kids.  Keep on encouraging them to get better and do better.  Keep on expecting much of them.  Celebrate their successes and encourage them when they fail.

But could I ask you to do something else this school-year?  What if in your classes this year, you deliberately look for two or three Mary Ann Birds who are kind of on the edge, who maybe don’t have the greatest home-life or the best grades, and seek to believe in that kid, to build into that kid, to help that kid see her potential and become what she may never be without your belief in her and your encouragement?

I’m a pastor, so I can’t help but get a little theological for a moment, so please bear with me.  My kids are long since grown and have kids of their own, but when they were in school, my wife and I decided we would exercise no influence over who their teacher would be in any given grade.  We could have.  Their elementary school principal was a personal friend and a faithful member of the church I served.  But we asked God to be in charge of that.  And we chose to trust that God would put our kids with the teacher they needed most and among a class they needed most to grow their lives.  Now, we didn’t always like God’s choice.  But by the end of each year we could see and so could our kids that God knew what He was doing.

I say that to say this: in my judgment the students who will sit at the desks in your classroom are not there coincidentally.  They are there because they don’t just need a geometry credit or a biology credit or an English credit or a foreign language credit; they need you.  And because God loves you and God loves those kids, He has put you together.  You already know that you don’t just teach subjects so much as you teach students.  So teach those students and believe in those students and encourage those students.  And maybe pick out one or two or three in whom you can make a real difference.  You can help a stone become flesh, a bud become a bloom, and a defeated kid taste a little success.  You can be another Mrs. Leonard to another Mary Ann Bird.

I guess I’m asking you to become an encourager.  The word encouragement is from the French word coeur: it means to put “heart” into someone.  You probably see more than your share of kids who could stand having some “heart” put into them.  Encouragement happens when you speak from your heart to someone else’s fears or failures.  Some are better encouragers than others, but all of us can do it at some level.  And for some of the kids in your classroom, any level you can offer may well be more than they’re getting anywhere else.

When the opportunity arises to encourage a kid, do it.  And I don’t so much mean group encouragement: “This is a great class.  You’re great students.”  The kids who get a lot of encouragement may benefit from that, but the kid who doesn’t will assume that you really mean everybody but him.  So find ways to offer individual encouragement.  And when you get the opportunity, do it.  Don’t hold it back and give it to them straight.

Garrison Keillor writes:

The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder.  E. J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch.  He’d spit and curse and rail at him.  And if a son hit a home run, E. J. would say, “Blind man coulda hit that one.  Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one.  If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say.  Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit.

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it.  Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfield fence for a long, long fly ball.  He threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and the glove.  When he turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, E. J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes.  The batter was called out, the third out.  Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad.  E. J. sat chewing in silence and finally said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago.  But he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”[2]

What kind of encouragement is that?  That’s the kind too many of your kids get at home.  You can do better than that as their teacher.  Kids who don’t get much encouragement need it straightforward and in clear language they can understand.  If they think you believe in them, they may start believing in themselves, and then the bar they set for themselves starts getting higher and higher and higher.  Don’t hold back encouragement or couch it in some backdoor way; offer it.

I always found that the best encouragement teachers gave me was honest feedback on the work that I did: written feedback on papers or tests, even just a line or two, affirming what I did right, helping me to see how to do other stuff better.  Huge encouragement for me!  From grade school to doctoral work, the teachers that encouraged me the most, the ones that I remember the best, are those who gave me personal feedback in word or in written form.  It’s discouraging to write a 20-page paper and get a grade and nothing else, even if the grade is an A.  Makes a student wonder if the teacher even read the paper or the essay on the test.   I had some friends who put a nursery rhyme in their lengthy essay just to see if the teacher read it, and a lot of teachers didn’t.  I’ve had all kinds of teachers in regard to feedback—from none to some to a lot.  So I made it a point in the teaching I’ve done at Midwestern Seminary and OBU to give written feedback on the work that’s presented.  It takes more time.  But it’s worth the effort.  Many former students have told me that they really appreciated the fact that I took time and interacted with them and the work they presented.  Personal, honest feedback feeds the soul of a kid. 

Have you read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini?  Great book!  The central character is an Afghan boy named Amir.  The story is told from his point of view.  His father is prominent and demanding, a man unfamiliar with the ways of the heart.  But another man, Rahim, works for his father, and this man understood the heart and always took a special interest in Amir.  On one occasion, Amir had written a story.  His father and Rahim were in the room, sipping branding and smoking cigars.  Amir asked if his father would read his story.  His father declined, just sort of blew him off in a way that cut out Amir’s heart.  But Rahim took the story and said he’d be glad to read it.  And when he returned the story to Amir he handed him a note to go with it.  “Then,” says Amir, “he paused and added a single word that did more to encourage me to pursue writing than any compliment any editor has ever paid me.  That word was Bravo.”  The note itself was just as encouraging and closed with these lines: “My door is and always will be open to you, Amir jan.  I shall hear any story you have to tell.  Bravo.  Your Friend, Rahim.”[3]

Take time to give some individual feedback.  It’s encouraging.  It can put heart into a student.  It can call forth better effort and harder work.  It can build confidence in a kid.  It can make a Mary Ann Bird spread her wings and fly to heights she never imagined.  Give honest feedback to your students in whatever ways best connect with the individual kid.

And could I encourage you to be available now and then before or after school to meet with the student who needs a little extra encouragement and teaching.  I know you’ve got lives.  I know you’re busy.  And I know you can’t do this every day.  The kid’s schedule may not make that possible either.  But could you do it some, now and then, for those two or three kids in your class who need the extra encouragement?  You will know when it’s important.  You will figure out a way to do this.  And in doing so, you will communicate to that kid that she counts, she matters, you believe she’s worth your time and effort, and you’ll see a better student and a better kid as a result of that little lagniappe, that little something extra, you offer to the kids who need it most.

When you believe in kids and encourage them, I guarantee years from now, some adult is going to say to a friend over a cup of coffee in the break room in his engineering firm, “You know, if it hadn’t been for Ms. Crawford believing in me and spending a little extra time to help me figure out my calculus, I may well be spending my day asking the question, ‘Do you want to super-size your order?’”

And some other adult is going to say to a patient, “I don’t think I’d have become a dentist if Mr. Clark hadn’t encouraged me not to quit at biology but to take chemistry too.”

And still some other adult is going to say to someone, “My 6th-grade teacher is why I am a teacher today.”

Who knows?  One of these days some Mary Ann Bird might be writing about the forever difference you made in her life.

When you believe in your students and invest in the particular lives of your students, they will remember you the rest of their lives, and they will rise up and call you blessed someday whether you ever know about it or not.

In some ways this may seem like a lot to ask, but really, I’m just asking you as a voice from our community, to lay hold of the ideals that brought you into teaching and coaching in the first place.  (I know it wasn’t the money.)  So lay hold of those ideals.  Believe in those kids.  Invest in those kids.  You will be disappointed sometimes, and you won’t bat 1.000.  But swing the bat.  In the 1957 World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees, Hank Aaron, the great home run hitter, stepped to the plate.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, ever the talker, said, “Henry, you’re holding the bat wrong.  You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.”  Aaron looked back at him but didn’t say a word.  When the next pitch came, Aaron hit it into the left field bleachers.  After rounding the bases and touching home plate, Hank Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, “I didn’t come up here to read.”[4] 

You didn’t become a teacher just to teach math or Spanish or industrial arts.  You became a teacher to impact the lives of students.  So swing for the fences.  And man!  What a difference you will make.

[2]Cited in “To Illustrate,” Leadership (Fall 2001), 79.
[3]Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 31-33.
[4]Cited by Mark Evans, Win at Life Wisdom (Little Rock, AR: Sullivan Ash Publishing, 2006), 17.