Teaching Secrets: Staying on Course

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May the wind be always at your back.

—Old Irish Blessing

Sometimes it is! Sometimes there are those teaching years which feel like smooth sailing, where everything is just right: Your administrator is supportive, encouraging, and a model of good leadership; the parents are happy, supportive, and appreciative, and the kids are just amazingly eager to learn everything you have to offer them.

Sometimes it's like that.

But then there are the other years, where everything you do feels like you are working against the wind, and the forces that influence you and your work seem purposely designed to foil your best intentions. Your administrator may be lurching from one great new idea to the next. Your students' parents may be uncooperative and full of blame, or downright toxic. And your students—even with your years of experience and very best effort—there will be those among them whose needs you not only didn't meet, but whom you feel that you failed. And, perhaps, you did.

How do you keep going, in those rough-weather years? TACK!—which, in sailing terms, means moving the boat at an angle to the wind, since the wind will not allow you to head straight for the mark. While it might seem counter-intuitive to spend time sailing away from your destination—off to one side, then turning the boat 90 degrees to head off to the other side—in fact, the boat is gradually getting closer and closer to the mark at which you are aiming. Trying to steer straight into the wind is both foolish and frustrating: A boat simply won't sail that way, in spite of your best efforts.

As an educator, to attempt to sail directly into the wind—when no kind or helpful breeze offers to push you straight toward your goal—is futile. To simply follow the wind—letting it take you whichever way it may be blowing at any particular moment—will waste a lot of time and probably leave you some place you don't want to be.

We must first determine the mark to aim for, and then find a way to keep our heading—no matter what winds may buffet us. What "winds" direct our sails as educators? Anything that places demands on our teaching: administrators, testing, parents, students, union rules, No Child Left Behind, endless paperwork, colleagues (both the partners who are a blessing and those who make life so much more difficult), certification rules, and on and on. Many of these winds may feel like they've been designed to thwart us, pushing us further and further off course from where we know we should be in our teaching lives.

Strategic tacking—reading the wind and responding appropriately—takes experience and wisdom. Sorting out which demands must be responded to and which can be maneuvered around (in our students' best interest) takes maturity and strength. We adjust our sails, and try not to sacrifice momentum as we move forward, sometimes incrementally, towards our goals. And, yes, we sometimes change course, but we do it as a conscious decision resulting from reflection, when the time is right, harnessing a new "wind" to move us forward.

Why are we Teachers?

In the NETWorking (Novice & Experienced Teachers Working Together) seminar I facilitate for Brown University, one of the first activities we do is to write a personal mission statement. Why are you a teacher? What do you hope to accomplish? Here are a few responses:

I want to teach: to help students understand themselves and the world around them and give them the tools to express that understanding, to encourage students to become critical thinkers, as well as socially responsible community members, and to work towards a stronger democracy.

My goal is to give as many students as possible the skills, curiosity, and know-how when it comes to achieving their life's goals.

I am a teacher because I want to see the "lightbulb" turn on in children's heads when they finally understand something they were struggling with. I want to be a teacher, to be an advocate for children, helping them to get the things they need in the world.

Obviously these novices have huge goals and expectations for themselves and their life's work. We post their statements right up on the wall, and at the end of the week, we suggest that participants take these postings back to their classrooms, and hang them up somewhere: perhaps on their desks, perhaps on the inside of a closet. Hopefully this tiny card will remind them, daily, they are there.

For without a mark to guide us, we cannot keep our heading. Without a goal to move toward, we will be at the whim of the educational breezes that threaten to move us off course. Without an ideal to aim for, it is easy to become lost in the sea of duties and demands that make up the role of a teacher. Making strategic choices and planning wisely for both ourselves and our students is our very best strategy.

Most sailors have heard the saying, "I cannot direct the wind, but I can always adjust my sails." We teachers can only adjust our sails effectively if we know, in our hearts and in our heads, where it is that we are going.

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