“Schools are not buildings, curriculums, and machines. Schools are relationships and interactions among people" (Johnson & Johnson, 1989)
The first day of school is not only an exciting moment in time for any educator, it is also a day of nearly unparalleled importance. Each new school year opens with a flurry of activity and tasks that immediately crush the preceding lull. The good news for teachers is that students arrive on the first day of school exhibiting their very best behavior. Even those students with the most challenging backgrounds and checkered discipline histories will put forth what, for them, is their very best effort on the first day of school. It is of paramount importance that, as educators, we do whatever we can to invest in and capitalize on this once-a-year opportunity, which can provide dividends far down the road. We must remind each other of a seemingly trite, yet powerfully prophetic cliche’: you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.
My primary message to educators during this time is very simple and can be summed up in two words: relationships and expectations. District office leaders should share--in a transparent and honest way--expectations they have for various stakeholders. Principals must outline their expectations for teachers as well as insisting that teachers establish firm, fair, and simple expectations at the outset of each school year for students. Teachers, in turn, must let their students know why the expectations exist and that these expectations will be enforced consistently for the remainder of the school year. Although expectations come first, the second step is even more important. After clearly outlining expectations along with answering why they are important, each group must then spend the remainder of our time building relationships with those around us so that people actually want to meet our expectations.
In our school district, students’ first day of school is next Wednesday. It will be one of many such “Opening Days” of my career, yet I never lose the nervous edge I felt on my very first day of school when I began my career as a first grade teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia. As we begin yet another new school year next week, I hope all educators share my sense of excitement, rejuvenation, and anticipation of what will be a tremendous year of growth for the students, parents, and staff we serve. Our success as professional educators will depend to some extent on our specific skills and the breadth of our knowledge base. However, I firmly believe that our character and our human relations skills are even more vital to the ultimate success we experience with our students and our entire school communities. Nearly every effective educator I have worked with in my career has excelled in the area of interpersonal skills. Although no list of such traits can be thoroughly exhaustive, I encourage you to peruse and reflect on those offered below. Let’s focus on these human relations skills as we embark upon a noble journey: teaching young people who need and crave our guidance:
- Be willing to admit when we’re wrong.
- Be able to laugh (have a good sense of humor) and cry (display empathy and sensitivity).
- Take time to help others.
- Remember how it felt to be a child.
- Be able to resolve conflicts between people.
- Enjoy working with people of all ages.
- Truly care about others.
- Realize that you can’t please everyone.
- Be optimistic about people’s motives.
No teacher at any school entered this idealistic career path to become wealthy, or because of the plush working conditions, or because of the generous monetary bonuses. Instead, many of us heeded this calling because: (1) we wanted to make a difference and (2) we felt that we had the capability to do so. As Woodrow Wilson suggests in the following quote, we are here to enrich the world, if not our stock portfolios:
"You are not merely here to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."
One way we engage, inspire, and empower our kids and each other is through storytelling. I am reminded of a story that a pastor included in the weekly bulletin at a church one week. It was titled “Pushing Against the Rock.” Without going into all the biblical references, it was simply about a man who was commanded to continuously push against a large rock, which he did for many years with no immediately discernible results. After many years of apparent failure, the frustrated man questioned what he was doing wrong and why he had failed. The answer given to him was that he had not failed at all; his calling was to be obedient and faithful and he had exhibited trust in following through on this calling. In the end, he had developed a strong back, arms, and legs through his daily efforts and the rock was moved for his as a reward for his faithful efforts.Like the man in this story, many educators reading this post consider teaching their “calling,” not merely their “job.” Like the man in the story, many of you will not see the rewards of your daily toil on an immediate or frequent basis. Yet, in the end, you will grow stronger through fulfilling Woodrow Wilson’s charge to enrich the world. Just as importantly, so will your students--whether you or they notice it this year or many years hence. As we look forward to our district’s “Opening Day” next week, I want to thank educators everywhere for making the most of their own Opening Day and for serving in the most noble profession of all: teaching.
3 Worth Reading:
1. Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply by Homa Tavangar
2. Teachers: Preparing for Your Best Year Ever by Elena Aguilar
3. First Days of School Wiki (lots of resources here)