At the recent National Dropout Prevention Network Conference, a group of us were discussing teachers that made a positive difference in our lives. As each of my colleagues shared an inspiration story or stories of how teachers impacted them, I struggled to remember a teacher’s name let alone their impact on me. I stopped paying attention to my colleagues (I am sorry) and racked my brain thinking some teacher some time during my K-12 school years made a positive impact on me. But I could not remember even one.
Later during the conference, I shared this sad fact and believe that I have dedicated my life to ensuring no student has the same school experiences that lead to the feelings I have about my teachers. I am not placing all the blame on all my teachers as I surely share some of the responsibility of how I engaged within the schools I attended.
I wonder what my teachers would think about my professional career of working in the field of education initially engaging with at-risk students and even teaching current and future teachers. Those experiences led me to a focus on education policy informing and influencing state-level policymakers and education leaders to encourage, support and reward the civic mission of schools and engaging students through effective teaching and learning policies. In addition my efforts have focused on social inclusion, school climate and social justice in education settings and systems.
While I cannot remember my K-12 teachers and give them credit for inspiring me, I can acknowledge that my school experiences have influenced my personal and career paths.
My undergraduate (University of Hawaii Hilo College) and graduate (University of British Columbia) experiences were very different and I can remember most of my instructors. I was fortunate that faculty members challenged me, had high expectations of me and refused to accept less than high-quality work.
They allowed me to focus on issues I considered relevant and coached me as much as they taught me. They demonstrated to me that education frameworks and processes can be used to address many social issues and that those issues have implications well beyond my areas of study. In other words I was able to focus on things I cared about and they pushed me to see well beyond my initial interests.
The questions they posed to me often required me to move from my comfort zone to reside in the “risk” area where learning really takes place. They encouraged me to challenge my own assumptions and look beyond sets of data I found most convenient or most helpful to make my point. They also encouraged me to challenge them and I can remember many formal and informal conversations with faculty members where there was a sense we were both teaching and learning.
As a result of my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I am a more critical thinker, better prepared to consistently reflect on my experiences and more capable of addressing social issues. These and other attributes I possess are directly linked to faculty members’ engagement with me and never allowing me to fall short of their expectations.
In summary I do not remember any of my K-12 teachers and not sure how they might have inspired me; I do however remember the faculty members who challenged me in my undergraduate and graduate classes and greatly contributed to my knowledge, skills and dispositions.
The difference in my experiences is that I succeed when lessons are relevant, teachers have high expectations of me and I am appropriately challenged. When these characteristics are not consistently present I am less motivated to learn and fail to make progress.
Fortunately, I have visited schools over the past three decades and observed many K-12 teachers with the attributes I needed. While they are not my teachers they do inspire me to do my best and hopefully they inspire their students to progress and succeed in school and in life.
I encourage you to consider how your teachers have inspired you and how you inspire others to be successful.