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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What Teaching Teaches the Teacher

The Dixie Diarist

Teacher, Writer, and Artist

I'm a special education teacher who thinks kids are the most important people on Earth, and that teachers and headmasters and principals and assistant principals -- as sneaky as they are -- are pretty darn important to the educational process, too.

I became a teacher when I was old enough to have legitimate ear hair concerns, backed up with a whole lot of life and work experience. And the classroom gave me a whole lot more -- ear hair included. Special education is all I've ever taught. I began as a wide-eyed substitute teacher and ended up as a full-timer with wide eyes. (I purchased my ear hair shaver at Walmart. Extra batteries, too.)

What do you learn coming out of an experience like that? Well, let me tell you what I learned . . .

1. Being a parent doesn't make you a better teacher. Being a teacher makes you a better parent.

2. Those savant students who know as much as you do about the subject you teach sure do keep you sharp.

3. I found out pretty quickly that, even though I tried, you can’t fix a kid's learning, behavior or emotional disorders right there in third period while you're talking about the Battle of Gettysburg. I got some good advice about that from Lurlene the principal one time when she said, "Fix the behavior; not the kid. You don't have time to do any real fixing," she said. "That's the job of their therapist -- if their parents care enough to get them one."

4. The five most powerful words you can say to a student, a struggling student or otherwise, are, "I am proud of you." When you say this a lot, and always at the right times, students will improve in their academic skills, and sometimes even their emotional and behavioral disorders seem to lighten. At the same time, as a teacher, your silent mantra should be, "Don't give up. I'm proud of me, too."

5. The moment when their eyes light up and they say, "This is great stuff!" and they mean it -- that's it. That's why you teach.

6. You're willing to spend your own money, too. You love to go to The School Box, even online. You love the way the place looks and smells. It's like a toy store for teachers. You feel creative and engaging and dedicated the moment you walk in. The teacher's section at Dollar Tree ain't bad, either. I learned early that kids will kill for stickers. Not other kids. You. They will rush your desk like the Pamplona running of the bulls for a sticker that says they did a good job.

7. The class periods -- and the full days and weeks and months and semesters -- when their eyes don't light up and they never say, "This is great stuff!" makes you wonder why you teach. Lurlene gave me some good advice on that, too. She said, "Don't take it personally."

8. The very best teacher advice I ever heard from Lurlene was advice she freely handed out to needy parents and students, too. She would listen very carefully to their drama, without interrupting, and then she’d say, "Get over yourself." To a mom, dad and student, after they got over themselves, they always ended up thanking Lurlene for the good advice and tough love.

9. There are very few teachers and parents who are confident enough in themselves to give out tough love. The ones who are confident enough give themselves tough love, too. That's how they back it up.

10. The time spent driving home from school was long enough to go over the day, every day, and figure what I could have done better, where I truly screwed up, and sometimes where I did a good job. It was also the best time to grieve, and even weep, for what I saw and experienced that day. I never wore sunglasses while driving until I became a teacher.

What about you? What's teaching taught you?

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