When I hear about all the programs and initiatives that are being implemented in schools these days, I sometimes wonder how staff members manage to get anything done.
It almost seems like schools that are successful are effective in spite of the programs, not because of them. At the very least, it seems like a heavy burden is placed on administration and staff to monitor and record an endless stream of data.
Maybe I have an over-simplified view of the situation, but it seems to me the most effective path to education is to recruit excellent teachers, give them the tools they need, and let them do what they do best.
I was sorting through some old files recently, and I came across some memos I received from a guy who was probably the best teacher I ever had.
I had him for a couple classes, and he was also my speech coach.
His name was Dave Gordon. He was a little bit kooky, which was just his style, and he was one of the best motivators I have ever met.
He had high standards, and held his students to high standards, and he did so in an incredibly supportive way.
He let students know he believed in them, and in his quirky way, he helped students to believe in themselves.
In drama class, for example, he had a way of gently, but firmly, pushing people to step outside their comfort zone and do things they didn’t think they were capable of doing.
Getting people to get up in front of an audience and deliver a speech or put on a performance can be a challenge at any age, but it must be especially tough with a group of inexperienced high school students.
Dave made it look effortless.
Through his sense of humor and clear, helpful criticism, he made people comfortable, and made the process seem like a fun adventure.
I was generally not a good student, but I looked forward to his classes, and they always seemed to end too soon.
As students, we felt like we were going through things together, learning and supporting each other along the way.
Dave’s enthusiasm and energy were contagious.
I watched students who were deathly afraid of getting up in front of the class in the beginning blossom and gain confidence as time went by.
As a coach, Dave was brilliant.
The memos I found were examples of the correspondence he sent out to our team every week during the season.
I suppose I have kept them because they remind me of a happy time in my life.
It made me laugh to see them again. They were mimeographs copies made on a mimeograph machine. That’s how they disseminated information to students when I was in school, in the dark ages before affordable copy machines, email, and text messages.
Dave’s memos reflected his personality. They were upbeat, oozed enthusiasm, and always included a dose of his special sense of humor.
They generally included instructions and information about the next meet in which we were to participate, and always included encouragement.
One memo, in which he encouraged us to think speech over spring break because we had a big meet coming up, included an acknowledgement that there was a lot going on that week.
“But you folks are already the busiest kids in the school, and I think you can handle it,” he wrote. “During the speech meet I ask you to put the other stuff out of your head and concentrate your energies on what is already a tough task . . . SPEAKING EFFECTIVELY.”
He ended that memo in classic Dave fashion, “So now, my children, go ye therefore into Spring Vacation and relaxeth. See you Tuesdave.”
Another memo ended “. . . then be ready to wage battle. Those kids from the other schools are scared of you. Give them REASON TO BE!”
After the typed portion of each memo, he ended with a handwritten message, “Love, Dave.”
Everyone on that team knew he cared about them. His success was partly due to instilling a determination for us to be the best we could be, and partly due to the fact none of us wanted to let him down.
It’s been more than 30 years since I was in his classes and on his team, and I still often think, not just of the things he taught us, but the way he did so.
That is an effective teacher.
I was an indifferent and cynical student, but he found a way to get through to me and get me excited about learning and participating, just as he did for many others.
I’m thankful for Dave and for the other teachers I had over the years who made a difference.
Their special ability to help students believe in themselves and strive for excellence transcended the subject matter, the programs, and the testing.
These teachers were able to walk into a room with a bunch of students, earn their trust, and encourage them to be willing participants in a journey to places they had never been before.
Teachers like that are worth more than all the programs and initiatives combined.