Lunch was over. My stomach was full. My eyes were straining to stay open, and I was going to need a cup (or an IV drip) of coffee to make it through the looming afternoon session of professional development. You know exactly what I mean— you’ve been there. My mind wandered from the PD session. The presenter then asked something that we all, educators or not, have likely been asked more than once in our adult lives. Who are your teaching heroes? Quick Kevin, think of an eloquent and engaging answer about the people in your life who cared for you, who made a difference, who pushed you to be your best…
Wow, it’s a long list.
I began to identify those who impacted me, but this time, for whatever reason, I focused on the why. In this moment, I suddenly realized how this question could help me to be the teacher that I needed when I was younger and how it could help me now to be that teacher for my students.
I believe this reflection can help other teachers as well. It’s a nice exercise to identify the teachers who changed our lives, but it’s a powerful exercise to go further and determine why and how they did it. These questions lead us to examine, and hopefully improve the ways in which we engage our students each day.
As I spent time thinking about my former teachers, I found one common characteristic that the greatest teacher-heroes in my life have shared. They saw things in me, good and bad, that I had not seen myself, and more importantly, they brought them to my attention. These teachers told me the truth, even when the truth hurt. Eventually, I grew to understand that sometimes the hurt was productive, and ultimately, the truth and the resulting pain made me a better athlete, a better student, and a better man.
Whether through Divine intervention, or fate, or dumb luck, I found myself in high school in the midst of a good cop/bad cop scenario. More accurately, I was in the midst of a good coach/bad coach (teacher) scenario. This was a time in my life that shaped the way I viewed myself and eventually shaped my role as an educator. For a time, I believed that I was a better athlete, student, and person than reality proved. I believed in this false self-perception until Coach I. entered the picture and immediately disabused me of my unrealistic notions. In my mind, I was a talented athlete and student— entitled. That changed the day that Coach I. began to refer to me as “Dead Man Walking.” Huh? I had no idea what that even meant.
In my naiveté, I did not see the connection between his comments and me. Then, my eyes opened. The meaning of his words hit me like a sledge hammer. He had no regard for my short-term mental anguish. He was telling me something that I needed to hear. Coach I. was letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I was on very shaky ground. What I eventually grew to appreciate most about Coach’s moniker for me was that it snapped me out of the cozy reality in which I basked in imagined privileges that I had not worked to achieve. I needed to accept that my abilities were less than I saw them to be, and that if I wanted a shot at making the team, I had better step up and buckle down. He told me the hard truth, and as a result, I gravitated to him. I knew I could trust him. It hurt, but it helped.
In an odd display of kismet, at the very same time that Coach I. was predicting my imminent demise, Coach R. was building me up. He would put his arm around me and make me believe that I could make my aspirations a reality. Coach R. taught me passion and commitment, and was (still is) one of the finest motivators I have ever heard, let alone had the pleasure of knowing. Coach R. believed in me, but to his credit, he didn’t stop there. Too often, as teachers or as coaches, we do stop there. Coach R. took the next step— he made sure that I knew it. I would have run through a brick wall for this man, because he believed in me and loved me and let me know it.
One of my favorite books, My Losing Season, by the late Pat Conroy is about his experiences as a high school and college basketball player. What’s truly remarkable about this work however, is the way in which he perfectly articulates how he came to know himself through his coaches and teachers. In the Prologue, Conroy writes, “I was never a very good player, but the sport allowed me glimpses into the kind of man I was capable of becoming.” Coach I. and Coach R., with basketball as our backstory, did this for me. Together, they made me take a hard, often uncomfortable look at myself and then lit a fire in me that I did not know existed.
The lessons they taught me have had no small role in shaping the man I am today. Who are my teaching heroes? This tedious afternoon of professional development reminded me of just how valuable teachers have been in my life. I, and all educators, must remember that carefully telling the truth to our students can be one of the most difficult, and at the same time, one of the best things that we can do for them. Our students are capable of amazing things, and we need to tell them as much. But too, we must make them aware of the brick wall that likely looms nearby. We must convince them that in spite of the echoes of “Dead Man Walking” and the inevitability of the wall winning on most days, they do have the capacity to run through the wall. Let them know, as my beloved coaches did for me, that you’ll be on the other side of that wall, cheering when they make it through.