Welcome. My blog is an experiment: Could I have something to say, once a month, for a year? While I like to tell a humorous story, there are stories and reflections I would like to share. My promise to you: when I've got nothing more to say, I quit. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lessons the Teacher Learned

The following text is (more or less) the speech I gave on Tuesday evening, November 27, 2012 for the Mathews High School Beta Club induction.  I post this in hopes that there are some people who this will resonate with.  I have in mind:
  • anyone who ever taught at Mathews High School,
  • anyone who has ever been a student there,
  • anyone who has ever returned to teach at a school in which they were taught, or
  • anyone who has found more appreciation for their educators and education in retrospect
...this is for you.

So if you know someone who fits the descriptions above and might appreciate the post below, please send this link along to them.  If you know a teacher who has been a generous and positive role model who might appreciate the post, please send the link to them as well.

Four Lessons I learned while Teaching at Mathews High School

          I am Phillip Sanderson (some of you may know me as Elizabeth’s Dad)—a Mathews High School class of 1987 graduate.  And for those of you who do not know me, I also taught at MHS for 20 years, starting in 1991 (thank you Harry Ward).  So this means that somewhere around 1984 I was one of you: a Mathews High School student about to be inducted into the MHS Beta Club.  But it also means that having moved back to Mathews to teach here, I have a fairly unique perspective—one from both sides of the desk.
          I know that in my four years as a student, I learned a lot of math, history, science and English.  However, looking back I realize that there are some important lessons that could not easily be learned as a student—things that I only understood inside these halls from the perspective of an adult.  So here are 4 lessons that I learned at Mathews, but as a teacher, things I didn’t have the wisdom to understand as a student—things I want to pass along to you.

Lesson number 1:         I know that all of you are smart students, or you wouldn’t be sitting in front of me.  And I’m sure that you can sort out the teachers—or the people in any job—who are just punching the clock from the teachers who really care about what they do.  And here’s what I didn’t understand as a student at MHS:  just how many of the teachers here fit that second category, that have a passion for teaching and more importantly, the students.
          I have witnessed, and have been on the receiving end, of countless acts of generosity and selflessness that I recognized only as a teacher.  (You’d be surprised how many times that kindness involved a chainsaw…thanks Mr. Comer, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Holiday, and Mr. Bohn.)  But mostly the students have been on the receiving end of that generosity.  There are teachers who took up a collection to buy a varsity jacket for a student, teachers who fed students, gave them a ride, made sure that they had a Christmas, …  And in more than one instance, I have seen teachers give their homes to students who found themselves without parents to care for them.
          As a student, I was oblivious.  Perhaps subconsciously I tried to keep every faculty member here at a distant arm’s reach.  But I think I lost out.  I could have gotten so much more out of high school if I had just been able to open my eyes and see the love that was around me.  I sold Mathews High School short, and because of that I sold myself short.
          Here’s my advice: think about what you are interested in and then find the people at MHS who are waiting for students to step up; find out how you can best benefit from all they have to offer.  If you think about it, you’ll know who to ask.

Lesson number 2:  Early in my career I had a decision to make: what kind of teacher did I want to be?  I looked around and paid attention to the teachers that students gravitated towards.  Ah… I knew I wanted to be one of those.  But on closer inspection, these teachers were of two very distinct types.  The first teacher was the “buddy” teacher.  The one who both sympathized and empathized with the students.  This teacher didn’t give a lot of homework and gave the students days off and showed movies the day before holidays.  The other teacher, the “battle axe,” was stern and demanded the best from the students.  Many times students grumbled and complained, but in the end respected this teacher.  This teacher was mentioned just as often as the “buddy” teacher, but in a different way.  This teacher was revered.
          My point is, I took shape in these halls; I was formed here.  The best of what I am came from the best of the teachers before me: Dorothy Foster, Virginia McDaniel, Joyce Deputy, Jeff Bohn, John Brown.   Choose your role models well and then actively pursue becoming the person you want to be.
Lesson number 3:         My first year of teaching, I made mistakes.  Not just teaching mistakes, but math mistakes.  When students tried to point them out, my first reaction was “Which one of us is the teacher?  Who has 4 years of college under their belt?  That’s right!  This guy!”
          Here’s my advice: when challenged, step back and look at your work.  Allow for the possibility that you have blundered.  From personal experience, I promise that the more you dig in your heels and assert that you are correct, the dumber you look when you are proven wrong.  And along the way, you just might gain the respect of those you’re working with.  And if you are proven correct, because you allowed for the possibility of your mistake, you come off looking not only smart, but generous.  As a bonus the student feels respected and validated, regardless of whether or not they are correct.
          Now when a student raises their hand and points out a possible mistake, I stop what I’m doing and look at the board.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
          The message here: never think that you are so good that you cannot make a mistake.  Approach life—both in your career and outside of it—with a measure of humility.  And if anyone thinks less of you, thinks that humility is a sign of weakness, well maybe you don’t need to be listening to their opinions in the first place.

Lesson number 4:         The final thing that I learned is best described by the author Charles Swindoll, in one of my favorite quotes:
          “The longer I love, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude,     to me, is more important than facts.  It is more important than the past, than         education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do.  It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company...a church....a home.  The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.  We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude...I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.  And so it is with you...we are in charge of our attitudes.”
         As a teacher, I find that it is important to have a really short memory, to wake up every morning and remember that I love my students.  That, even when they aggravate the teeth out of me, they are still my kids.  Sometimes when I get the most frustrated, I picture them walking down a dark alley in a city and someone trying to mug one of my kids.  In those times, I know what I would do for any of my students.
          Each morning, I made of point of checking my attitude at the door and forgetting any slights from the previous day.  My students probably thought I was crazy…they left one day with me yelling at them and they come back the next and we’re on great terms.  I guess if that’s crazy, I hope all teachers are crazy.
          I like what Swindoll says: we are in control of so few things in our lives, some days we have just one string—attitude.  And when you only have one string to play, make the best of it.  Make your attitude a conscious decision, a choice you make, and then each morning, choose to be positive.

           To summarize:  recognize the quality, love, and generosity of those people who surround you; choose good role models, live life with a measure of humility; and keepm a positive attitude.

          Finally, before I close, a small confession.  When I was a junior in high school, my plan was to leave Mathews County forever…shake the dust from my feet and good riddance.  I didn’t even buy a class ring.  Why spend money on a place I was trying to forget?   I was certain that Mathews High School and Mathews County in general held nothing for me.  Foolish boy that I was.