For almost a decade I had the privilege of working alongside Will Bagby (the fella above in the background). When he arrived at my school and set up his room, I wondered where all the wall decorations were. Lesson 1: I would quickly learn that for Will, it wasn’t about the superficial. Lesson 2: The Most Important Lesson: Teaching is about love and care for the individual. Will has taught me more about what teaching should be than I ever learned in school – I count myself lucky. Below are 13 questions that might prove useful in your classroom and remembering why we teach.
1. Why did you become a teacher?
I was 36 years old and a project estimator for an engineering and machine fabricating company. Up until that point, I had been a machinist/welder/millwright for years. I was bored and feeling unfulfilled. My wife was a teacher and I thought it would give me a chance to give back something AND be creative at the same time.
2. What was your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was that I was married and had three children. So as you can imagine, with a wife making teacher’s salary, it wasn’t the best financial decision for us. I had to go back to school and finish up my undergrad in English and get a Masters in Education. So I had to work a part time job that was sometimes almost full time and take a full load of classes. Luckily I have a wife who is supportive and loves me and doesn’t mind living a Spartan lifestyle.
3. What do you think made you successful?
I’m glad you considered me successful! I’m not even going to front. Being a man in elementary gives you an advantage in several ways. That being said, I think my biggest asset was patience.
4. How did you start your first day, first week of school?
I’m pretty devious. Since I taught fifth grade the most, I’ll talk about how I started that first day. When the kids came down the hall and I greeted them at the door, they would ask where they could sit. I would tell them to sit with whom and where they wished. Then I would look them dead in the eye and say, “But be very careful. This is your first test and my first impression. Choose wisely.” Most of them did. Then I would show them a powerpoint of procedures and expectations. At the end of that first presentation, I would ask them if I could guarantee their happiness for the rest of their life, would they do what I told them? They would say “yes” and then on the next slide it would say “Be a good person.” I would then go on talk about what that meant. It seemed to have an impact for most.
5. Did you have any daily norms?
I always stood at my door and said “good morning” and most of the time gave them a hug or fist bump. After the pledge I would always say “Good morning” again and they would respond in kind (I miss that.) I would actually teach manners. I know that sounds old fashion but I believe that manners are super important. I would always read the most amazing and meaningful novels I could find that spoke to what they were going thru. No matter how horrible a day they had or even if they hated me that day, I would fist bump or hug them before they left for the day.
6. How did you motivate?
I know this sounds corny but mostly I just loved them. I’d let them know it’s ok to mess up now and then. I would tell them stories of humanity and kindness. When they were mean to each other, I would talk them through why they did what they did.
7. What do you hope students remember about you?
The laughter and feeling of being loved. The knowledge that whatever the number they scored on a standardized number was not the measure of their heart. That’s what I remember.
8. Favorite subject / topic?
Reading…nothing even comes close. Favorite topic – How to be a good person.
9. How did you teach challenging students?
If you’re are talking about students with special needs, it was with a lot of encouragement and acknowledgement of the other ways in which they were gifted. I set the atmosphere where they weren’t afraid to raise their hand and get an answer wrong. When the other kids saw how gentle I was trying to be these students, they would try to imitate that. I kinda tear up thinking about how they did that.
10. Best memory teaching?
One time I had a girl, Emily, who had cerebral palsy that made walking difficult. One of her legs would swing out to the side causing her to walk very slowly. When we went down the hall to resource, lunch or whatever there would be two lines. One line would be way down the hall and a second line would be farther back and moving slowly behind this beautiful girl. One day, Emily was out to the resource teacher’s room and I was working with a group of kids. They were talking about the “slow” line caused by Emily and I asked them “How do you think she feels about it?” I said that and just walked away. Before I walked away, I look at Jessica and saw her cornflower blue eyes start to tear up. Jessica was the darling of fifth grade. The boys were smitten with her long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Her mom was the PTA presidents and Jessica was LOVED and lacked for nothing.
The next day when we walked down the hall, I saw the same two separated lines. But at the head of the second slower line was not Emily but Jessica. I saw Jessica cutting her blue eyes back to make sure she was going at just the right speed for Emily.
The day after that when I looked down our line, I didn’t see two lines at all. Just one. Just one very slow line going at “Emily-speed.” That’s how that class walked all year – at Emily Speed. Teachers would often remark to the kids that they look like they were going to some place awful because of how slow they were going and they would just smile to themselves. The chicken nuggets would still be there. The resource teacher wasn’t going anywhere and the playground would still there as well…even if we went at Emily-Speed
11. What did you learn while being a teacher?
That a little bit of love goes a long way. That most parents are doing the best that they can. That maybe I learned more than they did in a lot of ways. That best that humanity has to offer can be found teaching in classrooms and even next door to you.
12. What do you think most people don’t know about the teaching profession?
I don’t think people realize that the really good teachers care about their kids as much as they do. That the best lessons come not from a curriculum but from this small laboratory of life that the classroom creates. I don’t think most people know that teaching is like swimming especially in the lower grades. You really can’t stop to breathe. You have to learn to breathe while you’re swimming. That every day you have hundreds of interactions with the students and you have to get them all right with no margin for error. That’s a ton of pressure.
13. Why did you leave the profession?
I left because I felt I couldn’t be as creative as in years past. I didn’t like the de-emphasis on literature as sensory experience and the emphasis on reading as a clinical experience. Teaching is more art than science but in recent years the art is being squeegeed out for a results based curriculum at all costs. I’m not sure that the Emily/Jessica story would be as prevalent today as it was 10 years ago when it happened.
Will has a great blog you should check out. About teaching, parenting, children, and reflecting on what’s past. You can find it here.