Teachers Who Plant the Forest

During my second year of teaching, I taught across the hall from Jenny, a firecracker speech-drama teacher whose energy was rivaled only by her laughter and unruly curls.   She was a fantastic teacher, popular with students, and she directed a spectacular musical every spring and coached an award-winning speech and drama team.

One day I was standing in the hall outside her classroom, and I overheard a conversation between Jenny and a student. I’ll call the student April.  I knew April because she was failing my junior English class. A child of severe poverty and parental dysfunction, April read at a second-grade level and was the victim of a host of behavioral and cognitive disabilities.

“I want to be a lawyer someday,” she said to Jenny, who, in return, was effusive with encouragement, citing several examples when April had exhibited some lawyer-like quality.

I stood in the hall and rolled my eyes.  When April left, I walked into Jenny’s room.

“Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to her?” I said.

“In what way?” She was truly puzzled.

“Why would you tell a kid who can barely read that she might be a lawyer?  She doesn’t even have a good chance of getting out of high school,” I said.

“We don’t know that.  Who says?”

“Her ACT scores?”

“Well, if she does become a lawyer, I don’t want to be that one old crone English teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. I want to be the one person who thought she could do it, the one person she thanks when she passes her bar exam at the top of her class,” Jenny said.


That was 1994, and I’ve thought about this piece of advice for 20 years now. Teachers can be positive even in the face of vast deficiencies or they can be in the business of harsh reality in the guise of doing students a favor. It’s a pedagogical and philosophical choice.  You can deliver the big bad news to kids about their future, a future you don’t really know, or you can just allow the world to unfold as it does, but always be standing on the side of encouragement, even when you know the outlook is bleak.

And maybe the outlook isn’t as bleak as you think.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to April. Perhaps she didn’t graduate high school. Maybe she dropped out and got a job as a janitor. At a law firm. And maybe one of the attorneys needed some help on the weekends and asked April to file papers, and while filing those papers, she started picking up on the language of the law, and she expressed an interest in getting her GED, then she got an associate’s degree as a paralegal, and then she decided to finish an undergraduate degree, then was accepted to law school, and viola, here we are, a dozen years later, and there’s April walking across the stage to accept her degree of jurisprudence with the image of Jenny firmly in her mind saying, “I think you would make a great lawyer some day.”

Stranger things have happened.  The data gatherers haven’t invented the measuring stick that can calculate those returns. As Kentucky poet Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work. The thing about teaching is that you never know. Are you changing the world or just moving beans around?  Because regardless of what the bottom-line guys and the quantifiers say, good teaching can’t be measured, the outcomes can’t be predicted, and the true result isn’t known for decades.

But good teachers plant the seeds anyway, no matter the soil they are handed, and hope that the wonder and curiosity and passion they feed their students will be enough for alifetime of water and light.   We invest in the millennium.



Two Reasons to Teach Like Everyone’s Listening

If I had one bit of advice to give to a young teacher, it would be this: teach like everyone is listening.

I teach writing. Because writing is a skill that must be practiced instead of learned, my classes are 90% student-centered, with hands-on, practical work.  I rarely lecture or use a Powerpoint or worksheets. However, I still serve as the expert in the room, and as such, occasionally I’m called upon to unravel some mystery of technique or to explain some quirk of grammar.

I was doing that last Friday when I experienced the sublime – at least for a moment.

We were studying three-act structure and screenwriting plot points related to Finding Nemo.  I said, “A famous writer named Joseph Campbell believed there was only one story that we tell over and over in different ways, and all stories have the same plot points, whether it’s Finding Nemo or the Bible.”

For some reason, this sparked their attention.

“Really?”  Duncan said.  “The Bible? In eight plot points?”

“Yes,” I said.  I turned to the board and started breaking down the biblical narrative with the same terms we’d been  discussing related to Finding Nemo – inciting incident, midpoint, crisis, etc.

There are few more transcendent moments in a teacher’s life than when she’s standing in front of a group of students, explaining something, and everyone in the room is so silent that even the proverbial pins are paying attention and refusing to drop.

“Wow,” my cynical senior peer tutor said to me after class. “I think I heard angels singing.”

In 19 years of teaching, I’ve had only two dozen or so such moments. This one was the perfect conflation of genuine interest, novelty, and a student challenge.

In movies about teachers, the students-rapt-with-attention scene happens all the time, but real teachers know differently.  The most talented, engaging teachers battle for their students’ attention against daydreaming, texting, budding romances across the room, late-night Netflix binges, high-carb lunches, or just boredom.

In the class I just mentioned, I have 40 freshmen, after lunch, in the last block before school gets out. That they were even sitting in chairs boggles the mind.  But in that moment, when every eye in the room was looking at the board and every ear was tuned to my voice and all the gears were turning and all the lightbulbs popping, I could have taught forever.

And recreating those teach-like-everyone’s-listening moments (or at least pretending) might be the key to longevity in the classroom.

Yes, you’ll be interrupted by the PA system. The counseling office will call your room every five minutes. Some scandal on Facebook will preoccupy the whole class. Snow flying outside your window or a fight in the cafeteria or Mercury in retrograde will derail your best plans.  Even though those two girls in the back row will not shut up and everyone is a squirrelly, fidgety hot mess – teach as passionately, as sincerely, as supremely as if everyone was hanging on the edge of his or her seat listening.

And there’s a second reason you should teach like everyone’s listening- ultimately, everyone is.

A wise teacher knows that everything she says in her class room is not merely communication between a student and a teacher, but between a teacher and a student and his parents and the community and the administration and the policy makers and maybe even the Internet.  While he should teach as though there’s no one else in the world but those kids at that moment, a wise teacher should always envision the parents of those children kneeling by their chairs wanting you to love their child as much as they love them.  A wise teacher should envision her administrators, who truly want to protect and advance and graduate successful, smart, kind students, lining her classroom walls, listening. A wise teacher understands that what she says in her classroom may be repeated at home, which will be repeated at the water cooler or the beauty salon or at church.

So when you’re frazzled and the kids are nuts and your patience is whittled to a quarter width of a 0.5 mechanical pencil lead, how do you keep this focus as if everyone were hanging on your every word?

  • Believe that the subject you are teaching is the most fascinating stuff in the universe. Obsession is contagious.  If you believe what you are teaching is worthy of their attention, they will start to believe it to.
  • Focus on the 5 or 6 kids who are listening. Pretend your little clique of listeners is the most important audience in the world.   The rest of the class will eventually fishbowl the spectacle.
  • Pretend your classroom is the subject of a CNN documentary every day. Cameras are lining the walls, Wolf Blitzer is reporting on your every move, and Anderson Cooper is just waiting for 3:15 pm so he can interview you about your educational prowess. You are a celebrity.  Give it all you’ve got.
  • Ask yourself while planning a lesson: if I were a student in my classroom, would I be interested in this lesson? If the answer is no, scrap the lesson for something more engaging or riveting.

Even though kids aren’t always listening, teach like they are.  Even though parents and administrators and the public aren’t in your classroom, teach like they are.