I walked into a local business yesterday and stood in line waiting my turn. As I stood there, I knew that I recognized the face and the voice of the customer service representative eagerly assisting others. As I progressed through the line, I was taken back 21 years ago to my very first job as a middle school teacher. I was teaching sixth grade English language arts and social studies.
When my turn came and I stepped up to the counter, I simply asked the representative, "Are you Katie and was I your teacher in middle school?" She enthusiastically replied with a "Yes," and then explained what a great year it had been for her. After catching up on what she had been doing with her life—all good things—she made a statement that not only encouraged my heart but begged me to probe further. As I was about to leave, she stated in a positive manner, "I'm so glad that I bumped into you, as you are only one of two teachers that I remember from my entire middle school experience." I hugged her and walked away.
Again, I was immediately encouraged, but I really wanted to know what had made the difference 21 years ago, to the point where she was able to quantify that only two teachers throughout her middle school career really made a positive and significant difference. I asked her if she had just a couple of minutes to talk about what she remembered in terms of those two teachers making a difference. I wanted to take this informal chat and compare it to some things I have studied as a middle school teacher, middle school principal, and current professor.
I wanted to look through my lens as a researcher and compare to the role of practitioner. Katie agreed to sit down with me for a couple of moments and answer my questions regarding her powerful statement so we could share the information with others as a hopeful springboard for success.
As we sat down, I asked Katie to take just a minute or two to think about what she could really remember from middle school 21 years ago and what made the difference. After a purposeful reflection, I asked her as I was taking notes to simply describe the two teachers or the two classrooms she openly stated were the only ones that made a lasting impression on her as an adolescent. After another pause, she said the following:
"The classes were truly engaging, there were super-high expectations, and it was always clear that you cared about us."
I took those three components and decided to build upon them. First, I asked her what she really meant by "engaging" and if she could paint a picture for me, with words. Then, I asked her what she remembered or how she felt with these high expectations that she was referencing. Lastly, I asked how she knew that those two teachers really cared about her. Her responses are below and still hold true for any effective educator. They can also serve as a lesson for middle school teachers, principals, various stakeholders, and professors everywhere.
"When I think back to being engaged in your classroom, you really kept us busy, but in a good way. You moved at a really quick pace, and made it feel like we all had to keep up or ask for support and guidance. You did all of this in a way that didn't seem to bother anyone or make anyone feel inferior for asking for help. It was as if you made "asking for help" super cool and normal. We were comfortable raising our hand or asking a question or seeking clarification. It also seemed as though we were working but working in multiple ways. We may be reading, then writing, and sharing our thoughts with a partner. Sometimes we are working on a paper, or a project, or a presentation. It really was as though from the time we walked into class until the moment we finished up class, we were working hard, but again, doing good things and not really feeling like it was always work."
I found myself agreeing to everything she shared. She then proceeded to answer my question about high expectations in the following manner.
"I just really remember feeling like you had worked so hard to build a good and fun lesson, and that I couldn't let you down. But it wasn't an unhealthy pressure, it was appropriate pressure. You had high expectations, you were positive and offered us a lot of different supports, but in the end, if we didn't meet your expectation, we weren't just assigned a grade, and then the learning just stopped. If we didn't meet the expectation, we knew that at some point during the day or the week, and in some form or fashion, you were going to come back to us and we were going to have to close any gap or fix whatever component did not meet the expectation, that was within our capabilities."
In the end, she wrapped up with the following information regarding how students know when a teacher genuinely cares.
"To be honest, the first way that we knew that you cared about us, was by hearing you say it to us on a regular basis. It probably made you feel vulnerable with more than a hundred kids, but you did it, and you did it often. From day one, and probably every day after, you were honest and straightforward, and you said that you cared for us and that you would always do anything that you could for us. After that, we saw those words followed up with actions. I can remember you greeting us at the door. I can remember you dancing funny at school dances, just to make us laugh. And I can remember the constant high fives and hugs. Your classroom was a safe place. It w as a place where we came to learn, but we also knew that we could talk to you about anything. It wasn't like a lot of other classrooms. It really did feel like we were a team or a family, on most days. You were always proud of us and celebrating us, and you told us regularly that you loved us. In the end, it all worked."
My heart was full, and at the same time I was simply amazed. In a brief conversation, this young lady had captured so many things that our very best middle school teachers do on a regular basis, and she captured many different items that our very best administrators should ensure are happening in classrooms every day. Anyone could use her words as a checklist or a map moving forward for greater levels of success in the classroom: Keep students engaged, have a brisk pace, build students up, encourage everyone to ask questions, and vary the ways we teach children.
As I read her answers to my questions, the list continues. High expectations, appropriate pressure, positive interactions, differentiated support systems, and closing the gap. Lastly, more tips for all of us, educators at any level. Love kids, do anything you can for the students you serve, laugh often, greet them at the door with a high-five and kind word, build a classroom culture and a climate that is comfortable for learning and building relationships.
Regardless if you are talking to a student or a teacher who is reflecting on education 21 years ago, or if you're assuming the role of a more current researcher or practitioner, the bottom line is simple, a best practice is always a best practice, no matter when you use it.
James Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator at Coastal Carolina University, in Conway, South Carolina, where he works within the educational leadership department. He has been named both teacher of the year and principal of the year.
Published September 2019.