A seasoned educator once remarked to a newly minted teaching cohort to which I belonged: “Every night that you hit the pillow exhausted while involved in education, you know you have been living a meaningful life.” I have always found the statement to be perplexing. How can we know that we are living a meaningful life, that we are helping our students live up to their potential? Must one be “exhausted” to be living a life of meaning? Convincing teenagers that they have a greater purpose than their own gratification, and that they have a responsibility to make a contribution to the world and their fellow man can be challenging at best, and often daunting.
In my own struggle as an educator I challenge myself daily in three ways: giving more individual time to my students, becoming authentically personal and vulnerable, and becoming a stakeholder in helping them develop and pursue their passions and dreams.
Giving time means going above and beyond what is expected, spending quality time with students and discovering their truths, strengths and struggles. That will mean at times engaging outside the structured classroom and office. Get to know them in their comfort zone: on the basketball court, in the art studio and even on stage. Your recognition of their world and their interests, of their individuality, will carry over to a connection in the classroom as well. When young adults feel they have developed a non-judgmental relationship with an adult that allows them to be who they really are, it will make them receptive to input and mentorship. They will allow the teacher to join them on their journey to self-discovery.
We each have had our own challenging journeys that have brought us to where we are today. Sharing these journeys is one of our most powerful tools in helping young adults address their own weaknesses and insecurities and empowering them to overcome obstacles. Relating our own personal struggles, successes and failures will help create a relationship of trust and authenticity between teacher and student.
We are here to teach students that we believe in them more than they believe in themselves. Teach them to dream and to actualize their dreams. The grade we give them cannot be seen as the be-all and end-all, but rather as a stepping stone toward achieving their goals. Great men and women in history who have made life-altering contributions to mankind were not always A students, but they had curiosity and passion that was nurtured and cultivated by mentors who were able to recognize their talents.
Giving students the belief that they can achieve something more than what a grade reflects can prioritize motivation over achievement. They will learn that what may be labeled as failure is an important factor to success. It should provide the motivation to try harder. Any successful experiment comes as a result of the lessons learned from failure. It is the educator’s role to not only teach and set goals, but to continually check in and follow up. One of my own students returned to me years later to tell me that my “checking in” on her periodically is what kept her motivated.
Academic excellence can promote successful people; instilling passion can promote even more successful human beings. The task of being a successful educator can often be physically and emotionally exhausting, but there is nothing more meaningful than impacting the life of your students by directing them on a path to become productive and passionate adults.