Love Before Curriculum


My second year of teaching felt like the biggest gift: the chance to undo all the mistakes of my first year. To "get it right," once and for all. Influenced by one of my colleagues with whom I taught middle school, I determined that I would do at least one thing: stand at my door, greet each student by name, and shake their hands.

That sounds simple, doesn't it? It doesn't sound like it would be something that felt like an emery board to your basic human dignity. But we're talking about teaching seventh-graders here. Because they are so riddled with insecurities and self-loathing, they have a telepathic ability to spot weakness in others, especially their teachers.

That was Adam. Adam who decided that he would take the opportunity every morning to refuse to shake my hand, to refuse to look at me, to even acknowledge my presence any more than he would the door frame. There are 180 days in my district's school year and Adam took all 180 chances to creatively ignore me.

Recently, I found validation in the most unlikely place: Moby Dick. More than 160 years ago, Herman Melville described what every teacher feels like after the honeymoon period with their new class of students ends:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find...that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Only teachers can't run off and join the merchant marines or the circus or even a decent reality show. No, we suit up and show up every Monday because it's who we are.

Part of my suiting up is to sit down and write myself a letter. I think about all of the Augusts that started out with a whimper and ended with a bang in May. Reflection helps me to remember who I am and why I do this work.

There's so much pressure on teachers to work on the how of teaching -- and plenty of people have made a pile of money focusing on this aspect. Most every teacher I know goes to conferences during their vacation time, reads professional books, or signs up for seminars, all chasing that elusive "magic plan" that will take the pain out of teaching and guarantee whole herds of smiling, high-achieving students.

I've also noticed many official mission statements focus on the what of education -- "we do x because it produces y result." I'm not saying that this is bad. I'm just saying: straining to try new teaching techniques and reciting mission statements won't keep you going. Especially when you feel the "damp, drizzly November in your soul."

Midway through my third year of teaching, I was exhausted from the effort of cheerleading the cheerless. One particularly depleting day, I noticed a sheet of paper in my mailbox. An eighth-grade teacher had left sub plans to have her students write a letter to their favorite teacher. I immediately looked at the signature from the student who'd written to me. It was Adam:

She is my favorite because she was so nice. Every day she smiled at me and said hello. I was going through some personal stuff in my life. I knew it would be ok because she always did that.

Because of Adam, I found the will to push past appearances. And because of Adam, I realized that kindness goes deeper than any other lesson.

Several years ago, one of my students made a wooden plaque for me with the famous quote from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." With every new "reform" or even threat of being punched in the face, it's critical that we create and know our own why. Then what we teach and how we need to teach will follow. Or, as my former student, Kelly said so succinctly, "Love before curriculum."

What do you love about teaching and why? Write yourself a letter as a way of creating your own vision and values manifesto. Then, when it seems like October will never end, pull it out and re-read it.

This fall, many of you will be the only dependable adult that some children see in their daily lives. And for many kids, that is the difference between hope and despair. Just seeing you, talking to you, hearing you say good morning to them day after day gives them hope that things will get better.

We are teachers -- that is our identity and our craft, our gift and our responsibility. It's easy to forget the most simple thing about teaching and that's to remember to connect to our students. Especially the ones like Adam.

When you remember who you are and why you do this work, you can resist anything or anyone that threatens to derail you from your purpose and your role.