Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

Teachers: Stop commenting, positively or negatively, on your student’s physical appearance. It’s only hurting them.

As an elementary school teacher, I have made it my policy for more than a decade to avoid commenting on a student’s physical appearance. A student’s appearance should be the last thing of concern to a teacher, but more importantly, these comments, even when positive, can be damaging and hurtful to kids.

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This policy has been scoffed at by many of my friends and colleagues. I have been laughed at and criticized for my position. Told that I am taking things too far. Becoming too politically correct.

Yet I have articulated this position to every class of students over the past ten years, and I have never had a single student scoff or laugh or even question my policy. Every single student has appreciated and supported my position. Some of have tried to adopt it as well. 

It’s only adults who think I’m dumb.

Up until this point, I haven’t cared. I know I’m right. I know I’m doing right by my students. I’m accustomed to suffering fools gladly.

Then I watched Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk “Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you.”

It turns out that Ramsey would agree with me. She would support my position. Endorse it, even.

In her own words:

“Why can’t we compliment people based upon their effort and actions and not their appearance?”

After listening to Meaghan Ramsey’s talk and learning more about the incredible struggles that young people face when it comes to physical appearance and body image, I decided that it’s no longer good enough to simply ignore my detractors. I need to change their minds. Convince them otherwise. Make them see the light. 

I want my policy of refraining from commenting on a student’s physical appearance to become a policy that all teachers adopt. I want this to be a policy that educators embrace and champion.  

If you are a teacher, I ask you to consider adopting this policy for yourself. Watch Ramsey’s TED Talk. Read my original post on the issue, which outlines my rationale. Ask yourself if there is any reason in the world to compliment the pretty dress or the new haircut in your classroom today. Of all the finite minutes that we have to spend with our students, do you want to use even a tiny fraction of that time talking about wardrobe choices and hairstyles?

Is that the culture you want in your classroom?   

If you agree with me, I ask you to do more than simply adopt the policy yourself. I ask that you become a champion for this policy as well.

  • Talk to your colleagues.
  • Forward them this blog post.
  • Share this blog post via your social media channels.
  • Pass along Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk.
  • Find like minded people who will support you, and when they cannot be found, convince them to be like minded.

Even better, talk to your students. They are likely to be more supportive of this policy than many of the adults with whom you work. Enlist the support of the kids. Turn them into the spokespeople for this issue.

If students rise up and demand that teachers stop commenting on their physical appearance, both positive or otherwise, things would change overnight.

I plan on doing my part as well. I have already reached out to several TED conferences, asking if I can speak on this issue. If you know of someone hosting a conference let me know.

Whenever I am standing in front of a group of teachers (which happens more often than you would think), I will speak about my policy, tangentially if necessary, and ask them to adopt it for themselves.

I’ll look for outlets with larger audiences who will publish my thoughts on this issue. Magazines. Journals. Online resources.

I will seek to change minds and convince teachers that this is the right thing to do.

And it’s not easy. When I first adopted this policy for myself, it took months to train myself to refrain from commenting on physical appearance, and I was never one to mention physical appearance to begin with. I had to reframe my thinking and construct strategies to avoid situations where complimenting a student’s physical appearance almost seemed necessary.

When a student walks into my classroom and asks if I like her new haircut, I had to learn to say, “I didn’t notice your hair at all, but I loved the way you didn’t give up when we were solving those problems in math yesterday. Persistence is going to get you far in life.”

That’s a hard transition to make. It feels incredibly awkward at first. It’s still a little awkward. Explaining my rationale to my students helped, but it was still a long road to where I am today.

Get on the road now. Don’t delay. And spread the word.

It’s the right thing to do. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

If I was able to choose my children’s teachers, this is what I would want more than anything else.

If I were allowed to choose the teachers for my children, I would almost always choose the teachers with the greatest variation of life experience.

Give me a teacher who has dug ditches in Nicaragua, survived an encounter with a grizzly bear, panhandled across Europe, or spent ten years working in the private sector over a teacher who went from high school to college to graduate school to the classroom, absent catastrophe, epic struggle, or life-altering cataclysm.

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This is not to say that the traditional path to teaching produces bad teachers. I know many outstanding teachers who have followed this traditional approach. I simply place more faith in a diversity of life experience and the perspective that it brings than I do in a stable life and a college education.

As Mark Twain famously said, “I never let school interfere with my education.”

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Some of the very best teachers who I have ever known came to teaching from the most unorthodox and challenging routes imaginable.

These are the teachers who are confident enough to both take enormous risks and constantly ask for help.

These are the teachers who easily distinguish between what is important to learning and what is meaningless fluff.

These are the teachers who know which corners can be cut and which are critical  to the success of their students.

These are the teachers who demand great things from their students and know how to shut their mouths and get out of the way in order to allow those students to exceed expectations.  

These teachers tend to be unflappable, remarkably resilient, highly efficient, supremely independent, and beloved by their students.

In the words of one of my fictional characters, these are the teachers who teach school rather than play school.

High school to college to graduate school may transform you into a great teacher. But a diversity of life experience, a broad and varied perspective of the world, and a life of epic struggle, cataclysmic failure, and modest success is what I would look for first if choosing a teacher.

This is what I hope to find in my children’s teachers, far more than advanced degrees in education from the finest universities.

I thought this TED Talk demonstrated the importance and value of a diversity of perspective perfectly. It’s a stark reminder of how easy it is to assume that you and the people around you are the norm, especially when you and the people around you have always been you and the people around you.