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With Labor Day behind us now, students and educators across the country are back to school and working hard. This time of year I find myself thinking about how THIS year will be THE year - the year when I finally get it right! I'm still waiting for THAT year to come, but in the meantime, I'm sure that self-reflection and a focus on continuous improvement are essential ingredients of my professional growth. And so I reflect once again.... How can I make THIS year THE year....

During these times of reflection I often find myself thinking about my own former teachers. I had some great ones:

  • I think back to Loren Scalera, the 6th grade English teacher at Christianburg Middle School who taught me to write instructions clearly enough for her to follow and properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She is also the teacher who took an overly-talkative and hyper boy named Scott to get a doughnut after school at the nearby doughnut shop.
  • I think back to Wanda Howell, my first grade teacher at Norfolk Academy, who taught me to read. She is also the teacher who took the time to ask me how I was doing and then give me a hug.
  • I think back to Christiansburg High School teachers, Donna Rush and Jack Williams. I remember Mrs. Rush sharing her passion for History and Coach Williams teaching me how to act like a gentleman as I worked hard and competed on the court. They were also both teachers who were there for me in times of trouble, showing they cared and helping me make wise decisions.

As I have conducted workshops and spoken at conferences over the years, I have had the opportunity to ask thousands of educators to describe the teacher who most inspired them or who had the most positive impact on their lives. Over and over I hear different versions of the same answer. I am told about teachers who had enthusiasm for their subject matter, who pushed kids to be more than they otherwise would be, and who, in their own unique ways, demonstrated love for their students. Educator after educator describes Loren Scalera, Wanda Howell, Donna Rush, and Jack Williams.

I love movies about amazing teachers. Whether it’s Mr. Holland’s Opus or Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, these movies inspire and motivate me. I know that they are not real life. These movies are Hollywood’s depiction of life, and Hollywood’s depictions are often filled with inaccuracies. However, despite the hyperbole present in these films, there is also truth.

The truth is that people are inspired by great stories. We are moved when we see people who passionately pour themselves into others because it makes for a meaningful and memorable story. We see in the lives of Glenn Holland (Mr. Holland's Opus), John Keating (Dead Poets Society), and Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) something beautiful, something exciting, and something that matters. We get a glimpse of what we want for our own lives – whether or not we are in education. We see a life that matters, and a life that matters is a story worth watching.

As I think about these exceptional teachers – both the ones I know personally and the ones I know from movies – I can’t help but think about what makes them exceptional.  What does it take to be THAT teacher?  Not usually a fan of formulaic approaches to the life, nonetheless, I thought I'd see if I could make a list of what these people have in common.  Here's what I've come up with:

  1. They visually express their love for students:  These individuals don't just love their students.  They regularly demonstrate that love.  They do this by going the extra mile.  Ms. Scalera took me to get doughnuts.  Mr. Holland worked with Lou Russ outside of class. Jaime Escalante had kids in his home.  Mrs. Howell gave hugs. Coach Williams shared his wisdom by having me listen to songs.  Mrs. Rush told us she loved us and had a smile and laugh that backed it up.
  2. They believe their content is important and demonstrate a contagious passion for it:  They lead the horse to water AND make the horse thirsty enough to drink.  They act as if their content area truly matters, which empowers and emboldens them to have the courage to share content even with students who say they don't want to learn.  They don't mind be outrageous and crazy because they know it matters.
  3. They believe there is more to life than their content: While their subject matter matters (see #2), it's not the end all be all of their existence.  THAT teacher realizes that content is not the end all be all of a student's existence, either.  Therefore, they understand the importance of going beyond the content.  They teach the whole child.  Coach Williams made me listen to Aaron Tippin's You've Got to Stand for Something because he realized that the lesson of that song was more important for my life than whether or not I won a tennis match.  Mr. Holland taught Gertrude Lang notes on the page but also "that other stuff."
  4. They believe in continuous improvement and are not professionally complacent:  THAT teacher is constantly reflecting and getting better.  Mr. Holland was told by his friend the coach that he was a "lousy teacher" because he couldn't teach Lou Russ "to bang a drum or something."  Rather than get mad, Mr. Holland reflected and got better.  There is no room for complacency on the path to excellence.
  5. They believe that all children can learn the content they teach:  THAT teacher believes deeply that he or she can reach students - ALL students.  Jaime Escalante taught Calculus to inner city students.  In THAT teacher's classroom, students who rarely succeed find and enjoy the greatest success of their lives.  Because THAT teacher believes - no matter what the evidence might say - that he or she can get kids to learn.
  6. They believe they can make a difference: Education is a mentally and physically exhausting profession.  Sometimes you feel like you are writing, directing, and starring in a new one-act play everyday for an audience that doesn't want to be there - not an easy task!  It would be very easy to go through the motions simply to save energy and lower the frustration level.  But THAT teacher knows he or she can make a difference, and this drives THAT teacher to do a better job today than the day before.  While in real life THAT teacher might never get the send-off that Mr. Holland gets at the end of the movie (watch here), THAT teacherwants to live a story worthy of it.

Notice something about THAT teacher?  What sets him or her apart are the things he or she believes.  This school year, challenge yourself to be THAT teacher.  Set your bar high.  Live a great story.  Your life might never be made into a movie, but it will be worthy of one - and more importantly, you will change lives.  Be THAT teacher.

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