Teacher, Study Thyself?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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self-reflectionBy Paul Wright

This entry is adapted from a speech I gave to the Radnor High School chapter of the National Honor Society at their annual induction. While it was directed at high performing juniors and seniors, I hope it is also something that professionals, especially in a field often referred to as “a calling”, can take to heart.

Perhaps this crowd more than any other will permit a proud father to tell a quick story about one of his own children?

At Chestnutwold Elementary in Ardmore, they have an award named after a staff member who lost a battle with cancer a few years ago. The Mary Borman Award is given to the 5th grader who best represents the kindness and spirit that Mary exhibited. It’s basically a good citizenship award, voted on by the entire staff. Last year, my daughter Abby won it. Like all of the parents are in the room tonight, we were so excited for her.

The thing that made my wife Elizabeth and me the proudest was that Abby won the award simply for being herself. I thought of that when I sat down to write my notes for tonight, because I hope it applies to most of you in this room. Allow me to ask, then, as your futures rise before you: have you gotten here by being yourselves?

Right here, right now, I can assure you that you have the seeds of what you’ll need. I can also say, as someone well along on what has been an enjoyable and challenging journey, that you will need what you have.

Your work ethic … Your willingness to take up a challenge … Your acknowledgement of the power of an education: these things will serve you well, especially when the plans you make (and people as strong as you always believe they have a plan) change without your say so. I’m fond of the old Yiddish saying: Men plan, God laughs. I like it so much because I’ve been hearing laughter in the background my whole life. In fact, if I was to see myself in some clichéd time-travel- return-to-your-high-school movie of the week, here’s what I would have to tell my 11th grade self about his “plans:”

Okay, 11th grader, you’re about to lose your job at the Stationery Store in town (which you got after breaking your wrist on the first day of Varsity soccer tryouts), and you’ll get a job at the local Bennigan’s. Oh, I almost forgot, you’ll meet your future wife there when you both end up waiting tables during summers and breaks, but neither of you will be able to remember the first time you met — life’s like that.

You’ll go to Penn State — the only place you’ll apply, and your mom says she hopes the family can afford it. As a sophomore, you’ll be getting a B-minus in the best history class on campus, but the professor (European history scholar and Professor’s professor Jackson Spielvogel) will let you be a teaching assistant next semester if you can bring it up to an A.

You do, “nice work.” You’ll enjoy what you think is teaching, and apply to graduate school for it, but not until after you drive cross country and learn how to snowboard in Breckenridge with two people you’ll never see again. You’ll come home to go to Penn. You’ll meet three instructors there who will change your life. You’ll swear that you don’t want to teach middle school and you don’t want to teach in New Jersey. After you graduate, one of those instructors will get a principal’s job and take you with him. You’ll teach middle school in North Jersey for five years as a member of the first staff at Elizabeth, NJ’s Mabel Holmes Middle School. Your fiancé moves up a year after you do, and gets fired from her job three weeks after the move. You survive.

Two days before your wedding, your brother’s car gets a flat tire on 76 with the entire wedding party in it, but no lug wrench. A bird poops mulberry seeds on your wife’s dress the morning of the wedding. It’s a great day. You’re still happily married.

Your sixth year of teaching finds you in Cherry Hill, NJ, but you and your wife and newborn son are trying to return home to Philadelphia. Then, just as you make your peace with staying in Jersey, your alma mater calls and offers you an interview to “replace” the man who made you want to be a history teacher. And it gets better: a few weeks after you get hired, you’ll be paired with a guy from Harvard who is friends with a woman you taught with in New Jersey, and you’ll hit it off, and your wives will also, and you’ll probably be best friends and teach together for more than a decade at this point. Don’t ask about the eye injury you get helping that time with Freshman baseball — you’ll just have to be there.

While you’re simply going on about your business as a teacher you’ll earn recognition that makes you and your family quite proud. Then you’ll build some things that seem headed for great success, but get swept out from under you (life’s like that). Oh wait, did I mention the 12 triathlons after that summer when you finally get sick of being fat? Okay, I’ve told you enough for now — you need to get back to American Studies. Oh, and 11th grader? — the Eagles still haven’t won a Super Bowl …

How could you PLAN any of that? You see, hard work doesn’t need a plan. It just IS. Treating people well doesn’t need a plan, it just IS. Taking the occasional risk, or rebounding from a setback, doesn’t need a plan. These things ARE because good people know their value. They are habits, and habits of mind. The myriad tools you already have can be expanded and enhanced by using them. You’ll see that you don’t so much lead the way as it may lead you … if you’re willing to let it.

I’m a big fan of author David Foster Wallace, who died tragically a few years ago. In an a book length interview published after he died, he describes growing up as a reader, and how that made him different from other kids. Interviewer David Lipsky tries to connect DFW’s “precocious reading” with his success and prowess as a writer. Wallace simply responds that his parents didn’t really direct him toward anything specific in life, then adds, “Although of course you end up being yourself”.

That is what I wish for all of you: Opportunities to do hard work well. To find people whom you want to be around. To embrace goals that encourage you to climb higher and enjoy the view, without stranding yourself on the impossible heights of perfect. To reward yourself in small and powerful ways. And that when you count what is important, you are content having ended up being yourself.

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