John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
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I began my 33rd year of teaching this fall. The vibrant reflections of the following “educator’s affirmation” by Boston University School of Education professor Steve Tigner continue to resonate with me each day I walk into the classroom.
I dedicate myself to the life of an educator, to laying
the living foundations upon which successor
generations must continue to build their lives.
I dedicate myself to the advancement of learning.
For I know that without it our successors will lack
both vision and the power to build well.
I dedicate myself to the cultivation of character, for I
know that humanity cannot flourish without
courage, compassion, honesty, and trust.
I commit myself to the advancement of my own
learning and to the cultivation of my own character,
for I know that I must bear witness in my own life
to the ideals that I have dedicated myself to promote in others.
Most teachers do not realize the scope of influence that they have on the students they serve. The teachers that really make a difference are those who guide with principles that not only make better students, but, more importantly, help their students form a sense of who they are and what is important in life. They provide opportunities for young people to grow and challenge themselves.
It is also important to mention that there are teachers who believe that their responsibilities differ from what has been previously mentioned. Some educators believe that “performance-only climates” are all that matter. They know the subject matter, and appropriately translate information, and truly believe that are good teachers. But they sometimes fail to embrace their opportunities to expand the scope of a student’s abilities that accompanies striving to perform well. However, most of what these teachers do is not intentional. Rather, they forget whom they are working with. Although these teaching “blind spots” are not easily erased, good teachers never forget who they serve.Educators can be a significant influence in a student’s moral and psychological journey from childhood through adolescence to adulthood – a process that does not always happen without incident. Robert Kegan, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and the author of The Evolving Self, points out that we are asking a great deal of a young person – who, by definition, is struggling with observations and emotions about self and others – to see him or herself in a context that helps make sense of the world.
Not all young people implode under the stress of their social and familial odysseys. However, even for the most “competent,” the most “self-efficacious,” and the most “engaged,” sorting out identity and relationship questions in isolation feels difficult. Some are fortunate to have enlightened parental support, but even they need the assistance of other caring adults, such as teachers, who will model positive behavior and act as mentors for them. However, if the objective is not merely to survive the journey but to prevail, to enter adulthood as a responsible, balanced person with the capacity to care for self and others, then the importance of positive and consistent mentors, modelers and managers cannot be overstated.
Good teachers are mentors to many of their students. The consistency of the teacher’s actions and words speaks volumes to the care that is directed towards the student. Sam Osherson, a psychologist who specializes in mentor relationships, suggests by “showing up and being there” for young people, mentoring is mutually beneficial to both the student and the teacher. Teachers, through their sharing of experience and wisdom, may receive the chance for reflection on the reciprocal influences of the student-teacher relationship.
Mentoring done “right” allows a student to see the teachers as being fully human, not some sacred icon to be revered or demon to be exorcised. As mentors, good teachers are more than that; in that their humanness is exposed to the student. However, aspiring to be a mentor doesn’t confer any assurance that a teacher will make the connection with the student. Seemingly unsuccessful attempts of making connections with “at risk” students can be frustrating. We don’t always know if we actually get through to them or not. By exposing their authenticity and experience to the student, the teacher provides the greatest opportunity to be a catalyst for change.
ModelingGood teachers are also influential modelers of behavior. Through their ideals, words, and actions, teachers set examples by “leading by deed.” Children and adolescents observe the consistency of their teachers – they are very alert to adult hypocrisy. Young people respond strongly to adults who are clear about their adult responsibilities and appear to have influence.
To a teacher who has a well-formed character, this isn’t even an issue. These actions are so habituated, that to do otherwise would never enter into the picture. Good educators take advantage of teachable moments by displaying behaviors in difficult situations they would like their students to imitate. The teacher should ask him or herself, “If the students in my classroom are a mirror of my actions, what do I see in the reflection?” Robert Wuthnow, the author of Acts of Compassion, once mentioned that “a role is something you can take a vacation from. But a responsibility is something that is bonded.”
Good teachers see the big picture and keep the projector in focus as they manage a jigsaw puzzle of responsibilities in serving their students. The vision consists of doing the right things, the right work, the right behavior, and saying the right words – all the time. When teachers lose sight of the mission, it puts stress on the students and the school. Good schools don’t explode and become bad schools – instead they fray. Managing the process, which includes following the school’s mission, is no easy task. It requires constant care and feeding!
Although good teachers aspire to create meaningful and worthwhile environments for their students, they are, by human nature, fallible and imperfect beings. Teachers do get tired and do not always stay on course. When this period of low energy occurs, the good teacher perseveres by being “good enough” until the spark is re-ignited. It is right for teachers to reflect continually on the nature of why they teach, whom they teach, what they teach, and how they teach so they can “bear witness in (their) own life to the ideals that (they) have dedicated (themselves) to promote in others!
Steven Tigner’s “Educator’s Affirmation” is cited in Kevin Ryan and James Cooper, Those Who Can, Teach, 7th edition. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Kegan, R. (1993). The Evolving Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sam Osherson was a keynote speaker at the Spring 1999 Independent Schoo Health Association conference at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is the author of the The Art of Mentoring, published in the Fall 1999 ISHA Newsletter.
Osherson, S. (2001). Finding Our Fathers : How a Man’s Life Is Shaped by His Relationship with His Father. McGraw-Hill.
Osherson, S. (1993). Wrestling With Love: How Men Struggle With Intimacy. Ballantine Books.
Wuthnow, R. (1991). Acts of Compassion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.