“You can do this. You can do this,” she chants to herself, while quickening her steps, fighting an impulse to run back to her car. She heads straight to the office, looking for the principal. Minutes later, a tall bearded man steps out of the adjacent office and extends his arm.
“Hi, I’m Craig,” he begins and the young woman’s shoulders relax as she looks into his warm eyes. Phew, she can breathe again. “Yes, I received your resume this morning,” he explains. “We’ve actually just finished interviewing for all the positions we have available.” The young woman’s spirit sinks; but is reignited as he continues. “I have to say, though, I love your assertiveness and determination. How would you like to stay for an interview?” A smile breaks on the young woman’s face as the principal proceeds to call in other staff members to join in on the interview.
So began my journey as a primary grade school teacher.
Lesson learned: If you want something badly enough, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone to get it. Email, fax, call, go in person or, just like I did, do all four. Make your presence known. It’s all about standing out from the crowd.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the retirement party of the principal who long ago welcomed me into his school.
Craig has been a true source of inspiration for me and the many others who have been lucky enough to work with him. What makes him unique is how personable, laid-back and compassionate he is, to students and staff alike. To this day, he is the only principal I know who can name every student in his school, both past and present.
Case in point: in my first year teaching, I remember staying late after school very often – setting up, marking, planning, organizing, you name it. Having just completed Teacher’s College, I was determined to put all the theories and learning to use in my class. My goal proved futile. There were simply not enough hours, nor were there sufficient means to realistically transfer theory into practice. I had to face it, as excited as I was about my new role, it was draining me and depriving other aspects of my life. I was too tired to go to the gym after work or meet up with friends. My job was my life!
Then one day, Craig said something remarkably simple but potent enough to help shift my perspective. Work is work, but it’s not everything. How obvious! I needed to hear that, and the fact that it came from someone I admired and respected only gave it that much more weight. I simply had to draw the line somewhere if I wanted to keep my sanity.
Lesson learned: Having a work-life balance is a must. There will always be one more thing to do (especially in teaching), one more test to grade, one more lesson to plan, but so long as we are giving it our all during the work day, the rest can wait till tomorrow.
Anyone who has ever worked in a classroom knows how challenging it can get, especially when the student-teacher ratio is 1:30. Add a challenging student to the mix and it feels more like 1:100. I was blessed with such a student (I’ll name him Ali) who perhaps taught me one of the most valuable lessons that year.
Ali never listened, never did his work, always spoke out of turn, got the other kids hyper, and in short, made my job very difficult. I tried my best with him each day but nothing worked. It was when I called his mom from home one night, that I got to understand what he was going through (nobody was ever available during the day).
When I learned about some of the difficulties he faced at home, it made sense why he wasn’t able to focus and why school was not his priority. I approached him differently after that, and though he was still challenging, he slowly started coming around.
By spring time that year, Ali and his family relocated. I never got to see him after that. Though I did often wonder how he was doing.
It was one day during the following school year that I had a surprise visit to my class. It was Ali and his mom. I was happy to see them and know that they are doing well. But when she went on to thank me for everything I had done, I was quite confounded. What did I do? I certainly didn’t think I was successful teaching her son very much the previous year – I didn’t get it.
It turned out that I was the one who learned a lesson after all. As Maya Angelou once said:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
I had discovered what she was thankful for. Though Ali drove me absolutely crazy every day, I still treated him with an open heart. I think I got it.
Lesson learned: People – before anything else. Forget reading and writing, forget the description of your job. Sometimes you have to set aside your agenda and see people wearing a different hat.
I can easily go on and on about the many lessons I gathered from my first year of teaching. In fact, I continue to learn each day from the smallest teachers ever, my students; lessons about love, empathy, growth, about perseverance and hardship. No amount of schooling can prepare you for the most valuable lessons you’ll discover – those will only reveal themselves with time.
Essentially, life is your teacher.