Core Values Revisited

In March my blog will be five years old. I began it because I was working hard on my teaching memoir, and all the writing pundits pushed “wannabe” authors to have “platforms.” What does that mean? The writing coach Jane Friedman acknowledges the challenge of defining the term: “Author platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently. But by far the easiest explanation is: an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach” []. This concept arose before the ubiquity of the internet and various social media sites, but it has come to mean, “a writer’s collective presence on the internet” [David Gaughran].

My vague hopes of publishing my memoir drove me to start this blog, but it has become a pivotal way for me to think about and stay connected with education even as my day-to-day life has moved on. And it has led me to read the blogs of other educators to widen my perspective. George Couros writes one of my favorite blogs, and he recently republished a classic entry about core values. He builds on the concept of  Zappo’s, an online retailer that publishes their values and tries to ensure that they permeate all actions of the company.

Couros then goes on to offer his own core values for education:

  1. “Do what you can to support the growth and success of your students.
  2. Grow and learn in a way that you would expect from the students in your classroom.
  3. Push your colleagues to grow along with you, but support, collaborate, and empower them on their path.
  4. Over-communication is better than under-communication.
  5. Take care of yourself so that you can better support others.
  6. Find joy in your work.
  7. Take the work seriously but never take yourself too seriously.
  8. Share your passion with others so we can help students find their passion.
  9. Find and develop strengths and talents first of your students and colleagues. Always start in the positive.
  10. Don’t just value people but also ensure people know they are valued [].”

I love his list, especially his focus on positivity, collaboration, and passion. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I dare to add a couple of core values of my own [in no particular order]:

  • Every student can learn and can be encouraged to want to learn, so teachers need to figure out how to reach each student and how to break down tasks enough to empower students to succeed. After all, success breeds success, and it helps students gain the confidence they need to tackle challenges.
  • Great leadership empowers teachers to do their best. When it isn’t available, teachers need to build cohorts of colleagues to support their efforts and growth.
  • What teachers do matters as much as what they say. Teachers are role models whose behaviors impact their students’ vision of behaviors. Even on tough days, teachers need to remember that.
  • Good relationships are the core of good teaching, so teachers need to nurture their relationships with students, with colleagues and administrators, and with parents.
  • Helicopter parents can be challenging, but when teachers find a way to connect with parents, it makes a difference for those parents and their students.
  • Teachers often never know of times when they’ve had a real impact on a student. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have students let us know, even decades later. I keep a file of “fan mail” – when students sent me a note or wrote something on a paper that made my heart sing, I saved it to revisit on another day that might have felt bleak. We need to keep the faith – and the awareness – that we do have an impact.
  • Curiosity and open-mindedness not only serve teachers well but also are critical ways of thinking that they need to model for their students.
  • Students come to school carrying all kinds of baggage; teachers need to maintain standards but also have empathy and compassion and know how to get students to appropriate services if they reveal their burdens.
  • The purpose of education is not to learn facts but to learn how to find and use information, how to communicate clearly and effectively, how to think clearly, how to work collaboratively… Political pressure for “accountability” sometimes makes it hard to keep that focus, but it’s at the heart of what teachers should be doing.

Right now some of these core values may feel like “pie in the sky” when teachers, students, families, and entire communities are struggling with Covid and the mental health issues it provokes, with divisions over masks and vaccines and book choices, with an overall sense of uncertainty compounded by fear and fatigue. I honor all those stakeholders who keep trying in the face of these forces, and I long for the day when these core values have more room to grow.

Lessons Learned by the Teacher

It’s here, it’s really here! I now have in my possession the first copy of my teaching memoir, Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher. After I comb through this published copy, my publisher will make any final revisions and do a first printing of multiple copies.

I first envisioned this book nearly twenty years ago, and it’s taken seven years and the support of a first-rate writing group to bring it to this point. I find myself wondering what I’ve learned from the process… My random thoughts:

  • Teaching is the best job in the world except when it isn’t. Teachers who really care about what’s going on with their students will often ride an emotional roller coaster. When they’re lucky, the highs dominate the lows!
  • Good teachers never stop learning. Good teachers keep learning how to be a better teacher.
  • An unfortunate corollary to teachers needing to be lifelong learners: the teacher attrition rate means many never stay in the profession long enough to grow into their best teaching selves.
  • Good teaching depends on building good relationships. That’s not taught in teacher preparation classes, but it should be.
  • Every student is worthy of a teacher’s efforts, and every student can grow and improve. While some students face obstacles that seem insurmountable, a good teacher can often make the difference.
  • Another corollary, though: teachers don’t work in a vacuum, and they can never expect to always succeed. Naïve idealism carried me a long way, but reality will always intrude at some point.
  • Good leadership in a school empowers good teaching. I was lucky enough to work for a couple of excellent leadership teams. If only every teacher could have that opportunity, students would benefit.
  • Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, is quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” Teachers who recycle old lesson plans, ignore the social change going on around them, and fail to adopt new teaching methods as they become available are missing the opportunity to be their best teaching selves. Districts who support teachers who want to change empower them.
  • I miss teaching – not right now, of course. I have watched my colleagues and their students struggling since the pandemic. But I think I was driven to write this book as a farewell to my teaching career and a love letter to those who made it memorable.

Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” And Samantha Hoffman [Chicago Writers Association] could have been speaking for me when she wrote: “I write to tell stories, to connect with and support people, to express my opinion, to make people think, to work things out, to discover. So many reasons.” For me, writing this memoir has offered some perspective on my thirty plus years in education.