Did you ever have a truly GREAT teacher? You know, one who expected just a little bit more from you—pushed you just a little bit harder than they did everyone else—someone who believed in you when you didn’t even believe in yourself? Chances are that you’re like me and you owe a lot to the hard-work, patience and unwarranted belief of one of these very special people that we call teachers. At any time they could have passed us by and went on doing just enough to collect their paychecks. But instead they invested themselves in us and set out to help us find our unique potential. I don’t know which would be the better analogy—squeezing blood from a turnip or digging diamonds from a cowpile—but either way it’s nothing short of a ‘water into wine’ miracle in my book!
One of those special teachers for me was my 7th grade English instructor Mrs. Betty Thigpen. A few years after my parents’ divorce I was going through some—well, adjustment issues and schoolwork just wasn’t very high on my list of priorities. Some of my teachers dismissed me as trouble and wanted to put me in remedial classes. Mrs. Thigpen however, perceived that I was an energetic child with a vivid, hyper-imagination. She recognized that unless the school’s curriculum could somehow be made to challenge me then I would simply ignore it. So, instead of having me carted away to become somebody else’s problem she took stock in me and began to tailor my classroom assignments to spark my imagination. William Author Ward once said that “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Mrs. Thigpen did all of that—and she was pretty clever at it too because she somehow convinced me that I possessed the natural talent to become a writer. She even managed to sell me on things like grammar, spelling and literature by making me believe they were the tools of the writer’s trade. (Yep, she was a sly one all right!)
A Dying Art
There are few roles that have as much influence upon our society or culture as our teachers. Everyday teachers change the world—they’re just usually doing it 20 years before the fact! Even the smartest doctors, physicists and entrepreneurs on earth have had their ideas and aspirations molded by their teachers at one time or another. Good teachers want their students to surpass them in knowledge, ability and scope. They pour themselves out planting the seeds of trees that they will likely never sit under.
However, the classroom teacher’s traditional role as educator, advisor, mentor and coach has changed drastically in recent years. Today’s teachers find themselves with less and less influence over their pupils because of a ‘Wal-martized’ educational system which dictates to them exactly what they’re supposed to say and do in every instance. Politicians continue to think that students can be canned, labeled and sorted using standardized tests and that somehow this makes them “educated”. Yet, despite these “advances” American students continue to fall further and further behind other countries in critical areas such as math and science year after year.
This “Pop-canning” of public education creates a self-defeating cycle. Good, experienced teachers are burning out under the stress of having to push kids through percentage-based hurdles without having the power to discipline or even provide positive reinforcement as needed. They no longer even possess the authority to properly maintain control of the classroom much less protect themselves from dangerous students. And to make matters worse, the newer teachers lack the practical experience, are less prepared educationally themselves and are simply not given the incentives to try to provide their students more than what the school board’s curriculum dictates.
Mrs. Thigpen could not have helped me under today’s system. I guess I would have just become another sad statistic. Unfortunately, many of our good kids are doing just that.
The Teacher as a Coach
Scripture tells us in Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This plain, simply written sentence has a wealth of information packed within it about being an effective teacher. And by teacher I mean all forms of the word; parents, older siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, church / community leaders as well as classroom instructors. The simple fact is that many of the most important foundational teachings that our children ever receive come from their interactions at home and community before they ever attend their first day of school.
First, notice in the scripture above the use of the word “child” (singular) not children. This indicates a need for effective teachers to look at the curriculum from the needs of the individual student instead of vice versa. Every child is unique and his natural abilities must be cultivated and nurtured independently. That is not to say that they shouldn’t learn social skills such as sharing and teamwork. Rather it just means that children adapt into social groups better when they are already confident and adjusted emotionally as individuals.
Secondly, (and perhaps most importantly) consider what word is used to describe the method of education: ‘Train’-ing. Ask any sports coach and he’ll tell you the difference between classroom drills and on the field experience. To “train” means to engage the athlete’s body and mind fully…conditioning them to perform under pressure and to excel even when circumstances are not optimal. That coach would also tell you that if that athlete did not have the proper internal motivation and drive then they would never reach anywhere near their true potential.
The cart simply can’t go before the horse. Likewise, kids must develop a passion for learning first before they can be taught properly. The most effective teachers will be those who can first kindle their inner fires and then bring them to the chords of wood.
Calling Mrs Thigpen
To break the vicious cycle of the standard “pop-can” education we as a child’s teachers must train them to look beyond our failed educational system for the answers. And we must give them compelling reasons WHY they should. Why is it better to become widely read and well traveled than to drop out or sell drugs? Why should they make the effort to become fluent in foreign languages or undertake the challenges of Calculus and Physics? Why should they aspire for a classic well-rounded education rather than simply find a niche that makes a lot of money? These are questions I believe that we as teachers can only answer by our own personal examples. It challenges us to embody the very principles that we are teaching. Passionate teachers produce passionate students because as a principle like begets like.
Writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the sea.” As teachers the burden is on us to INSPIRE our children to not be content with the world around their doorstep but rather to reach for distant shores.
I recently learned that my old teacher Mrs. Thigpen has passed away. She probably never realized how much influence that she had on me or how profoundly grateful I am. However, I do know that all of her love and effort towards me was not in vain. It will live on in me in my actions and words. May God grant me the insight, skill and opportunity to pay it forward to others just as she did for me. And I pray that God will somehow help me to be at least half as effective as she was. Thank you Mrs. Thigpen.