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Believing in our students
Dec 1998/Jan 1999
Authors: Donald C Wesley
Subject Terms: Teaching
Teachers work in the art of learding learners to realize their potential.
Inspired teaching, which encompasses the spiritual, is both felt and
Copyright Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Dec 1998/Jan
Teaching is the art of leading our learners to realize their potential.
And when we elevate young people, we elevate ourselves.
When Titanic director James Cameron attended Stamford Collegiate High School
in Niagara Falls, Ontario, his biology teacher helped him and his friends
form a theater group. This teacher told Cameron he had "unlimited potential."
Not the best academic student and admittedly "pretty rebellious," Cameron
never forgot those words. "It meant something," he told an interviewer
just before Titanic opened, "to have somebody believe in you" (Simon, 1997).
Believing in someone is a concern of the spirit, and it matters in the
classroom. When Ian McKenzie, Cameron's teacher, encouraged his student's
potential, he was practicing Goethe's assertion that when we treat a person
"as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make of him what
he should be." Cameron described how this action affected him: "So I said,
`Ian McKenzie said I have unlimited potential. I guess I'd better get busy"'
Most of us can probably recall a teacher who encouraged us. What we do
not often think about is how that action of uplifting us also uplifted
our teacher. Believing in our own students not only is good for them, but
also is a powerfully ennobling experience for us. Moreover, it encourages
us to see ourselves as the better people we hope to become.
Marv Levy, longtime coach of the Buffalo Bills, announced his retirement
on New Year's Eve 1997. In expressing his thanks for the opportunity to
be a coach, he quoted a former teacher, Alice B. Conlan. Asked why she
had chosen to be a teacher, she had replied, "Where else could I find such
splendid company?" (Levy, 1997).
Did Alice Conlan have students who were truly splendid company? Or was
she making a choice simply to see them that way? How could she have known
that Marv Levy would become a successful professional football coach? Was
it, perhaps, that she simply chose to imagine that he would rise to his
potential? Whatever the reason, Marv Levy never forgot her. In a reflective
moment at the end of his career, he recalled her fondly.
The Journey from Nobody to Somebody
Let's face it. Most of the students we work with daily have little identity
beyond home and school. To the world, they are anonymous nobodies. It is
through the way that they are treated, challenged, and coached that they
become somebodies. This treatment, of course, must see beyond their present
accomplishments, which are usually pretty standard. The spiritual, says
the dictionary, is characterized by the "ascendancy of spirit" (Prentice-Hall,
1983). This ascendancy is a journey from being nobody to becoming somebody
unique and special-well before talents soar, awards are handed out, and
high-paying salaries are offered. A student's "something special" may be
little more than a healthy dose of potential, but school people can choose
to emphasize and to cultivate it. Anonymity is no match for teachers who
choose to believe in their students, even on the slightest evidence.
Teachers, too, can suffer from the darkness of anonymity. It comes to us
through isolation from colleagues and parents and through the effects of
delayed gratification. Not only are we members of a team with whom we rarely
meet, but also we rarely see the fruit of our labors. Especially for those
of us who work with younger children, the flower may be years and years
in blooming, and it may bloom in some distant place. We may only find out
about our students' achievement if someone tells us or if the bloom is
so bright that the whole world sees it, as in the cases of James Cameron
and Marv Levy. Perhaps a little suffering of this kind is good for us.
Daniel Goleman suggests, "There is much to be said for the constructive
contribution of suffering to creative and spiritual life; suffering can
temper the soul" (Goleman, 1995). Too much of it, however, can be destructive.
Redeeming Our Students, Redeeming Ourselves
The spiritual life of the classroom is inextricably bound up with the notion
of redemption, a word that means "buying back." Redemption is deliverance,
a liberation from the obligation to suffer in the extreme. Think of teaching
as reclaiming students from anonymity and leading them toward deliverance.
Interestingly enough, the student, thus redeemed and motivated, provides
the teacher with a reciprocal liberation.
The teacher, nevertheless, must begin it all. Anonymity is almost always
encased in a powerful inertia that takes great effort to turn. Although
some students find motivation in success with content, many cannot even
begin to do so without the teacher's effort.
A Simple Effort of Imagination
As educators, we can help ourselves by trying to see all our students as
if they were our own children. A variation might be to always imagine the
real parents to be present whenever we work with a child. Sadly, we do
so infrequently. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of
Teachers, made reference to "our shameful national indifference to children
who are not our own" (1998). And writer Alfie Kohn has observed, "We live
in a culture that is remarkably unfriendly toward children in general;
a 'good' child is one who doesn't cause us any trouble" (1998).
Certainly we must be truthful with our students. They must learn to deal
with criticism and bad news. If work and behavior are not up to our
consequences are in order. But that deals with only part of the problem.
In the 19th century, it was popular to speak of "redeeming the time" through
some uplifting activitysome refinement of thought and feeling-such as reading,
studying, or writing. This is a useful way to think of the examples we
provide for our students when we structure learning, challenge our students'
skills, and demonstrate our belief in our students.
Lifting Troubled Spirits
As certainly as success in learning lifts the spirit, so can a troubled
spirit preempt learning altogether. Fear and illness, whether mental or
physical, require a response from us that is prerequisite to our helping
children learn content. Yet the wil act of believing in a student's ability
can overcome many problems. Ruth was a 9th grader who declared that she
could not attend classes at our high school. Her fears could not be reduced
to manageable specifics. She was simply overcome by them. It was useless
for our team to attempt to rationalize them away.
We started by telling Ruth repeatedly that we were in this together, that
we knew she could overcome the fear eventually, and that we would make
only one demand. She must try every day to spend as long as she could in
her assigned classes. The first day she made it through barely one period.
Then she came to the office, and we sent her home after telling her that
she had done the best that she could do and that we continued to support
her efforts. She must, of course, try again the next day, we explained.
In just a few days, Ruth was getting through her entire schedule.
Shortly after that time, Ruth moved to a nearby school district, and we
lost track of her. She recently returned to see me at my office. She told
me that if it had not been for the way we handled her fears, she might
never have returned to school. A recent graduate, Ruth told me that she
wanted to make a difference in the lives of others the way our team had
made a difference in hers. She said that she was planning to be a teacher.
Linda's was a much more difficult case. As a 9th grader, she developed
migraines so severe that she had to be instructed at home. Intelligent
and quick, she was incapacitated when the headaches came, sometimes for
days on end. The medical people were legion: a doctor, a psychologist,
a psychiatrist, a chiropractor, and a family counselor, among others. They
could not agree on the source of the problem, and they were miles apart
on how to treat it. School officials also attempted to help, but Linda
only retreated further into her isolation.
An administrator began his efforts to help simply by visiting Linda and
her family at home. He told them that they were going to figure out the
problem and fix it one way or another. They would, he said, take it in
small, manageable steps. The migraines had a history of lifting when school
was out of session, so when summer came, home instruction allowed Linda
to finish most of her course work. Brief but regular discussions with the
school team focused on the more distant futureLinda expressed an interest
in veterinary medicine-as well as on the immediate necessity of returning
to school in the fall.
As the opening of school approached, Linda's family and the team put together
a simple plan. Linda would come to school a few times before classes started
and walk through her schedule. She could bring a friend. The day before
school opened, she made one last circuit of the building. The plan included
an agreement that if Linda felt she could not attend school for whatever
reason, she must telephone the administrator and discuss it early in the
Some days were successful. Others were disasters. It took almost a full
year for Linda to establish a pattern of attending at least three or four
days a week. It was a demanding, frustrating situation for all involved,
but it worked. Linda graduated three years later in January, one semester
behind her original class. She is pursuing her career choice. We still
do not know what caused those crushing headaches. What we do know is that
they have largely disappeared.
Schools and Spiritual Wellness In each of these true stories, we had no
standard response, no objective cause, to work with. Assuming a cause that
was more spiritual than temporal, we responded in kind with a spiritual
plan based on a belief in the student's potential-and every effort we could
conceive to redeem the student from the darkness of anonymity. When educators
see themselves as the custodians not only of academic standards but also
of spiritual wellness among our students, we juxtapose those values that
matter most in schools with those that are so intricately balanced in the
In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states unequivocally, "In a very
real sense, we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels" (1995).
Fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis argued for the legitimacy of emotions when
he concluded from his own lifelong experience as a teacher, "The task of
the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts"
(1947). More recently, reform expert Linda Darling-Hammond paused to remind
us, "Education should be a source of nurturance for the spirit as well
as a means of reaching understanding" (1997). The spiritual aspect of teaching
and learning cannot be separated from the understanding of content. Education
is not about cutting away excess vegetation, but about planting and harvesting.
Toward Inspired Teaching
Many of us have been around schools for a long time. We know inspired teaching
when we see it. Perhaps that is because inspired teaching, the kind that
encompasses the spiritual, is not only seen, but also felt and experienced.
And it does not happen only in classrooms. In guidance and administrative
offices, in hallways and cafeterias, on stages and in gymnasiums, it happens
when committed, caring adults choose to redeem the time by valuing both
the cognitive content at hand and the potential of the student in question.
Whether the student's concern is mastering a concept in math or simply
getting up the courage to come to school, inspired teaching puts aside
the familiar, rational cynicism that distances teacher from learner and
focuses on nurturing the seed, coaxing it to rise in the desert in spite
of the odds. Inspired teaching is performed daily by the oftenunheralded
masters of our profession. Occasionally, the bloom is so great that thousands
notice it. More often, recognition comes in the form of a note, a telephone
call, a comment by a grateful alumnus, always, it seems, just when we need
it most. We keep folders of such priceless communications to read over
from time to time.
The education of the spirit is like a circle game that goes round and round
from teacher to student and back again. Like the most powerful dramas,
education is certainly about content and theme, but it is also full of
energy and pathos. Like our best actors, master teachers give themselves
fully and selflessly to their art every day as if it were for the first
time. Where else, indeed, could we find such splendid company!
Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The right to learn: A blueprint for creating
schools that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Feldman, S. (1998). The
childswap society. Education Week 17(18), 15.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books. Kohn,
A. (1998). Only for my kid: How privileged parents undermine school reform.
Phi Delta Kappan 79(8), 568-577.
Levy, M. (1997, December 31). Retirement speech aired on Buffalo, New York,
local television stations. Lewis, C. S. (1947). The abolition of man: How
education develops man's sense of morality. New York: Macmillan. Prentice-Hall
Press. (1983). Webster's new twentieth century dictionary: Unabridged,
second edition-deluxe color. New York: Simon & Schuster. Simon, J. (1997,
December 31). Larger than life. Interview with James Cameron. The Buffalo
Donald C. Wesley is House II Principal of Orchard Park High School. He
may be reached at 23 Orchard Place, Gowanda, NY 14070 (e-mail: dcw1946@email.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
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