Things I Learned When I Was Supposed to Be Teaching

I just finished a 9-week stint as a high school math teacher, and I’m certain that I learned much more than the kids did.

The high school near our house lost one of its math teachers just a few weeks before the start of the school year, so I agreed to work as a long-term sub while the principal found a replacement. I dragged home the massive textbooks and got to work figuring out some lessons. I had no idea how much I’d learn.

  1. A small dose of nervous fear is a great motivator. I was always keenly aware that these kids were my responsibility, and their learning was our responsibility together. It was surprising to me to find that, of the two subjects I taught, I was usually better prepared for geometry, the subject I knew less about. I suppose my lack of familiarity with the subject kept me humble enough to know that I needed to study every night.
  2. The doldrums are inevitable. For everyone. After the novelty of the new school year wears off, many students lose their motivation. They neglect their school work and make a teacher’s job that much harder. Can’t say for sure if I was the chicken or the egg, but I lost my motivation, too. I found myself dragging into work, with a bit of a short fuse sometimes.
  3. Good news counteracts the doldrums. I stumbled onto the realization that a short, good-news email to a parent works wonders for everyone involved. The parent is thrilled to hear good news about his student, so he writes a note of thanks and acknowledgement back to the teacher. The student is thrilled that a piece of good news made it home, so she participates more in class because she realizes someone is watching. The teacher is thrilled to get a note of thanks from the parent, and she hurries into work each morning to see who has written back. It’s a win on all three fronts.
  4. Every student in the building gets it right sometimes. It may not be often, and it may have nothing to do with Algebra, but when a student does the right thing, the adults around him need to catch him doing it. Too often, it seems that adults focus too intently on the things that kids get wrong. But it should come as no surprise when they mess up, because childhood is a learning process. Instead, we should watch for the moments when they do the right thing and acknowledge those moments.
  5. Good students shouldn’t be taken for granted. Some students get it right more often than others. They always do their homework and participate in class. We shouldn’t forget to recognize their efforts. They benefit from good news, too.
  6. Learning is only half of the battle. Some kids come to school with the weight of the world on their young shoulders: discord at home, hungry bellies, deployed parents, and impending moves. Classwork and homework are important, but the mental health of the student is too. If we’re willing to make accommodations for students who have learning challenges, can’t we do the same for students who have personal challenges?
  7. Apologizing when you get it wrong goes a long way with teenagers. Acknowledging your mistakes is honest and human, and they’ll appreciate the candor. I assumed that one of my students was being careless when he dropped a calculator in class. Twice. Turns out it was an honest mistake, and I chastised him before I got the whole story. He got very angry and I lost any opportunity I had of teaching him geometry that day. I sent an email home to his parents apologizing for my mistake. I apologized face-to-face the next day, and he recovered beautifully. No long-term harm done.
  8. It doesn’t take much time to bond with a group of students. Leaving those students was harder than I ever dreamed it would be. Kudos to the teachers who forge these relationships every year, only to send the students on to the next round of educators.

I could tell endless stories of good news and bad news, and too many with heart-wrenching details. The take-away for me was that we could all benefit from the exchange of good news. Everybody feels good, and the good mood is infectious. It spills into other classes and out into the community.

Education isn’t a perfect endeavor, but it’s a noble one. It has the potential to change lives and better our communities. Shouldn’t we invest at least as much time in the education of our children as we do updating our social media accounts?

What if, for the next week, you made a 1-for-1 investment: one note of encouragement for every Facebook post, Tweet and Instagram photo? We might find that sometimes we have to look for the good in order to write a note of encouragement, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a win on all three fronts.

4 thoughts on “Things I Learned When I Was Supposed to Be Teaching

Add yours

  1. Great read, Shannon and very insightful. I had never given much thought to kudos for teachers, students and parents, but it does form a never ending circle or triangle. Must try some of that on the younger ones here, especially my guy with low self esteem. Thanks again. Love you and miss you all.

    1. The whole experience was eye-opening for me, Marsha… Stumbled onto a lot of things that I never knew. Pretty sure I learned waaaaay more than they did. 🙂

  2. You know, if we cut the pay and retirement benefits of politicians we could probably afford to pay good teachers…and soldiers…what they’re worth! Except you…not enough money in the world to pay you what you’re worth in either profession 🙂

    1. Good point about our government, especially given the gridlock and failure to compromise. Also a good point about teachers and soldiers. We could probably put police officers and fire fighters in there as well. (Miss you, my friend.)

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