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Words to Live By

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

There are those moments in our lives that resonate with such meaning that we derive lessons from them that inform our futures and mold our characters. Most often these realizations come with the benefit of hindsight, distance, reflection, or perspective. There are those rare moments, however, when we realize the depth of a situation while we are experiencing it. One such moment in my early days as a teacher resonates deep within me to this day.

Returning home very late one evening from a graduate class at a nearby university, I had a flat tire on a dark country road near the school where I had recently been hired to teach. I pulled off the highway and got out of the car to assess the situation. Frustrated that I would have to change a tire in the dark, I was both relieved and startled when an old man appeared out of the darkness and asked in his slow, country manner, "You got a flat?" I acknowledged that I did indeed and admitted that I hadn't changed many tires by myself. He took the jack from my hands as I maneuvered the contents of the trunk to get to the spare tire, chattering nervously all the while.

As I handed him the spare from the trunk, I was surprised to see that he had already jacked up the car and removed the flat tire. Still a bit uncomfortable with this stranger, I continued to rattle on about teaching at the high school just down the road—wanting him to know I was a local. By the time I had put the flat tire into the trunk, he had finished putting on the spare.

I walked around the car a little surprised that he had worked so quickly. As he stood and turned away, I asked, "How can I repay you for your help?" He smiled at me and said, "Teach good things" and walked back into the foggy night from which he had appeared. I stood there a little dumbfounded and still a little scared, knowing that I had just received an important charge from this mysterious stranger.

To "teach good things" has become my challenge as a teacher and leader. My curricular decisions, my classroom-management style, my dedication to professional development, and my relationship with students and colleagues are informed by this deceptively simple commission. As I stand before my students each day, I am humbled as I struggle to live up to the man’s simple request. My calling to teach is inextricably bound with his auspicious words, "teach good things." More than two decades later I continue to discern what is good and to share that with my students.


I recently came across a poem that I had tucked away the summer after my first year of teaching. This was the first time I've seen it since I heard the poet read it at a summer seminar years ago. Even with only one year of teaching behind me, I was struck by the poem's truth and insight. I appreciate it all the more as a veteran of the classroom. It is taken from the book Vein of Words by Jim Wayne Miller, a wonderful teacher in his own right.

Teaching
is running in place
with weights on your feet.

It's an old injury
that never heals and so
I go into each hour still
sore from the last exercise.

Loving the possibilities
of wood—slender shapes,
wings, visions of flight
frozen in seasoned stock
dry and durable—I work
in a sultry greenhouse air,
sculpting in ice

Shapes that melt in the mind.
I write on water, I sweat
and always come away wet
behind the ears.

How often as teachers and leaders have we felt the weights on our feet? We work hard to affect change and struggle under the restrictions of organizational structures, limited time, inadequate resources, and political pressures from those outside our profession. This struggle leaves us "sore from the exercise," but it's a good sore, the kind of sore from hard work on meaningful tasks.

We are inspired by "the possibilities" contained in those whose lives we are entrusted and realize how fleeting our attempts sometimes are, sculpting ice "in a sultry greenhouse." Like the first-year teacher who first read this poem, I come away from my work "wet behind the ears," informed by my experiences, hoping that I can "teach good things."

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