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Who is the teacher who had the most positive impact on your life? Would you say you ever had a teacher who could be described as a compass - pointing you to the truths of life you needed to learn? What was that teacher's name? What was it about that teacher that would cause you to name them as your answer to these questions?
I have had the privilege of working with thousands of educators across the country. Often I will ask groups of teachers the following: "If given the choice, would you rather be remembered for making a lasting impact on someone's life or for teaching content." Over and over again, teachers say they want to be remembered as making a lasting impact on someone's life. They want to be that compass for a young person and point them to truth. They want to inspire, to motivate, to challenge, and to encourage. They hope to awake passion, help students find direction, and spur them to greatness.
That doesn't denigrate the importance of teaching content in the slightest. In fact, teachers realize that if they can inspire, motivate, and encourage then they'll also be able to teach content and skills more effectively. However, most people entered this profession for the purpose of changing lives. Yes - they hope to use content and skills as a means to do that, but ultimately they want to be someone who guides and helps mold young people. They want to be compasses.
How much of our professional development focus is spent learning ways to be compasses in the lives of young people? We go to workshops and conferences on assessment. We listen to speakers with ideas about grading, about pedagogy, and about classroom management. We take classes on our content areas and on using technology to teach them. All of those topics are necessary, useful, and appropriate, but how often do we spend meaningful time with our colleagues talking about ways to better love kids, to better guide them toward their purpose, and to better communicate just how beautiful life can be?
Stop and think about the students that seem the most hard to reach. What makes teaching them so difficult? I contend it's due to a believing problem. Consider the student who has a very high IQ but believes he will fail, who believes you and the entire system are against him, and who believes that there is no point to working hard because life will never be all that good anyway. That student is hard to teach despite his natural intelligence.
Now consider another student. This student has a very low IQ but believes if he works hard he'll succeed in your class. He believes you, the other teachers, the administration, and the rest of the school are there to help him. He believes that if he makes the right decisions now, he'll be able to get somewhere exciting later on. He has the power to shape his life for the better. That student is fairly easy to teach.
The "problem" with many of our students isn't a problem of intelligence or capability. It's a believing problem. There are ways of thinking and believing about life that do not lead to positive outcomes, and there are other ways of thinking and believing that put one on the path to living the kind of autonomous and productive life that has a positive impact on those around you.
So if the problem is a believing problem, why do we spend so much time on pedagogy, content, technology, and assessment? Don't hear me wrong - those topics are essential for excellence in the classroom. But why don't we spend more time learning how to address student belief systems? Why not, instead of finding ways to pour content more efficiently into their heads, spend more time finding ways to build belief systems in students' hearts?
I know many educators feel as though they don't have time to aim for the heart. After all, you barely have enough time to cover the head knowledge. How in the world can you possibly add in a whole new focus? Consider the following four truths of teaching:
If you agree with those statements, then look at them in reverse order. If a teacher take the time to go beyond the content with students, then the students will believe the teacher cares. If the students believe the teacher cares, then the students will like the teacher. If the students like the teacher, they will work harder. Hard work leads to success.
I would contend you don't have time NOT to go beyond the content with your students. And not just occasionally or accidentally when the teachable moment arrives. I would contend that just as one intentionally creates teachable moments for content, a teacher who wants to have a lasting impact on the lives of young people must intentionally create teachable moments that are beyond the content.
So how does one do this? Well, the purpose of this blog post is to make the case for going beyond the content rather than going into detail on how to do so. However, I will leave you with two ideas for resources:
If you are an educator, what you do is profoundly important. For some students, you might be the only accurate compass they will encounter this year. Don't waste the opportunity to purposefully, intentionally, and lovingly go beyond the content with your students. Be the person they will remember as having a powerfully positive impact on their lives!