In honor of Fathers Day, this post is about one of my two greatest mentors in life and in the field of education: my dad. With an estimated 50% of teachers dropping out of education within five years of earning their licenses, most schools are using their resources wisely by providing mentors to their new teachers. In my first year of teaching, it was essential for me to know people who could help me figure out HOW to teach. However, this continuing high dropout rate could be a symptom of new teachers not having mentors that show them WHY we teach. My dad has been this latter type of mentor to me.
My dad began his first job as an elementary teacher in the 1960s when he was only 21 years old. In fact, it was the first job that he had ever had. He taught for over 40 years in the same school district until he retired a few years ago. He was a member of that school district’s community, not only teaching, but being a friend to so many of the teaching and non-teaching staff in his school, creating school traditions, organizing school events, and even designing his school’s logo. It seems rare to see that kind of community involvement in the younger generation of teachers. Maybe we’re less likely to stay in one district long enough to create such a stable community; maybe we’re too afraid of losing our jobs to become too attached.
My dad says that teaching was a calling for him. Despite his other talents, from auto mechanics to ceramic art, and the fact that elementary education was not a very popular major for men, he never struggled over choosing what to do with his life; he knew. I’m sure this is partly due to the fact that my dad just IS a teacher, whether he’s in a classroom or not. Although it’s taken me much longer to hear my calling, I think I’m now understanding what he means.
The education system that my dad entered as a 21 year old was different in many ways from what it is now. I think it was a system that suited his teaching style (and probably most good teachers’ styles) than the one that he retired from. But he always found creative ways to work his own way of teaching into the restraints of standardized curriculums and testing. Adaptability is an important trait for teachers to have, but so is standing up for one’s own professionalism and doing the best job of teaching possible, whether it is the standardized way or not.
Educational research in recent years has focused what makes great teachers great. The results of these studies show that there is no formula or protocol that we can all follow to be good teachers. The best teachers have styles and use techniques that vary dramatically, but what they have in common is that they teach to their own personal strengths. This was certainly the case for my dad. He has an amazing range of interests, which makes it possible for him to quickly bond with nearly anyone. He used this in his teaching to reach his students, using a shared interest to creatively teach the concepts in any subject. He could teach math with car engines and reading with dinosaurs. Of those who didn’t share one of his many interests at the beginning of the school year, many developed shared interests because of his enthusiasm.
Once his students were sharing an interest, he would often lead them to explore in much more depth is the norm now, due to the current emphasis teachers are forced to put on preparing their students to take standardized tests. I remember my dad’s class doing projects like recording the changes in sun spots over several months and designing their own coats of arms with symbolic designs that they had researched. These projects did not only inspire higher-order thinking, but they are the kinds of projects that his students will remember well into adulthood.
The toughest part of being a kid in a school where my parent was a teacher, was the possibility of overhearing peers bad-talking my dad. Fortunately, this happened very rarely, and when it did, it was complaints about him being too hard of a grader (although I’m not convinced that they would have been earning As in any other teacher’s class). It’s likely that he was tougher than most teachers, but I believe that his grading was based on his understanding of his students’ abilities and the belief in their potential. He took assessing seriously and his grades were meant to be accurate reports that would help his students learn and prepare them for junior high. Now that I’m a teacher, I find that I am also becoming a tough grader with strong opinions about accuracy in assessing student learning.
My dad has never been one to candy-coat the negative aspects of his teaching career. In fact, both of my elementary teacher parents mildly discouraged me from going into education because of the increasing difficulties and uncertainties in teaching. But no matter how frustrated my dad could be with the problems in his job, a single funny or touching or happy anecdote about a student would show why he put up with the frustrations for over four decades. The connections with students is always the focus and the joy of teaching for him. I’m so lucky to have grown up with this outlook on what would become my career as well.