Normally I don’t write personal things here, but today I’m going to make an exception. If you’re not interested, I won’t be offended if you stop reading.
As most of you know, for the first 33 months I had this blog, I wrote it anonymously. Other than a handful of people I told and a handful more who figured it out, it wouldn’t have made sense for me to write include personal stories here.
That was really hard for me in 2014 when my son Jordan graduated from high school, moved into an apartment with friends, and took a trip to Italy, all within a week. As proud as I am of my profession, I’m even prouder of my children. Jordan is brilliant and lives about five miles away, attending his second year of college. He’s one of the most considerate kids young men I’ve ever known. Every time I see him, I feel like his mom and I have done something right.
I also don’t want to slight my youngest, Duncan, who is a sophomore at Norman North. As an eighth grader, she managed to raise $2,000 by herself to go on a mission trip to Haiti. She has been an athlete and is a talented actress and singer. She has had the same group of friends, more or less, since early in elementary school. There are a lot of them, but they are great kids. She has more honors and accomplishments at this age than I probably have had by the time I was twice her age. She has unlimited potential and drive, and I can’t believe we only have three years left with her at home.
Today though, is about our middle child, Stockton, who leaves tomorrow to start college at the University of Texas. I’ll see her soon enough; Friday, I’m going down to Austin to help her move into her dorm. Still, for a while anyway, tonight is her last night at home, in her own bed, secure with her parents down the hall.
As last year unfolded, I can’t tell you how many people asked me where Stockton was going to attend college. She started with a long list of schools. Ultimately, she was going to be at one end of I-35 or the other. Her final choices were UT and the University of Minnesota. She didn’t apply in-state. Most of the people at work asked me how I could let my daughter go so far away.
It’s easy. I’m a realist. I know this child. Just try to stop her.
This world is bigger than Oklahoma. She wants to see more than the area where she’s lived her whole life. She has academic interests and career goals, most of which could have been met had she matriculated from Norman High School to the University of Oklahoma. After all, that’s what I did. I took the safe route; I just rolled down the street.
Probably what I admire most about Stockton is that she’s willing to shed comfort for adventure, for opportunity. She doesn’t take the safe way out of anything. I guess another way of saying that is that sometimes she infuriates her mother and me by making things harder than they have to be. Still, I think it’s this strong will that will serve her well as she fiercely takes on the world.
Stockton has always marched to drums that no one else necessarily heard. When she was a toddler, she would just make up words, and they would stick. When she was learning to count, and we introduced her to abstract concepts like a million and a billion, she naturally assumed that the next level up was a stillion. A stillion is still the hyperbolic word choice around here for large sums of money. For example, your back to school shopping budget isn’t a stillion dollars! She also gave us the word skrunkle, which is a measure of cheese. This is an actual conversation that happens here:
–Would you like a skrunkle of cheese?
-Could I get a half-skrunkle?
I think most families are like this; they have a sub-language that only makes sense to them. I also know that what I’m experiencing is hardly unique. Kids grow up. They go to college. They move away. For a while, I probably won’t want to go in her room. Or maybe I’ll knock on the door, expecting an answer. Perhaps I’ll be so busy with the new job and Duncan’s activities that this will seem normal sooner than I expect.
As a parent, I don’t second-guess every decision we’ve made. I look at the big picture, though. Is Stockton ready for the world? Yes. No. Maybe. Probably. Is it ready for her? Who knows…
My belief as an educator is that our job is to prepare the students to have as many choices as possible by the time they graduate from high school. I think we’ve met that standard as parents. I think the Norman Public Schools did their part too. It’s more than that though.
has become this young lady
yet there are times I wish they could be like this forever:
(yes, they’re going to be furious at me for that last one)
Stockton, you have an unbelievable future ahead of you. The only thing that could stop you is you. I feel I have inadequate words for telling you how proud your mom and I are of everything you’ve already done, and everything you can do. Since my own words fail me now, I’ll close with my favorite lines from your favorite Billy Joel song, Vienna.
You got your passion, you got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?
Good luck, Stockton. Good luck, Austin. And as much as it pains your Sooner-grad parents to say this, Hook ‘em!*
*offer not valid Oct. 10
Tomorrow, I get to welcome new teachers to Mid-Del Public Schools. I’ve been involved in new teacher training for the last seven years while I was in Moore, but this is my first run at it as a superintendent. I feel I have more to say than I have time for, and I’m not well-known for sticking to a script once I get going – especially when coffee and donuts are in my line of sight. For those of you who made tomorrow’s schedule, I apologize in advance.
With that in mind, here’s what I would like to say, again, if the script mattered.
Welcome to Mid-Del Public Schools! For the next 9 months, and hopefully longer, you will be responsible for educating the 14,500 students in this school district. First of all, we want to thank you for accepting that responsibility. These are children who need you, who need a good education, who need to know that what we do everyday has relevance to their lives.
We have school for one purpose – to teach children. Parents send their kids to us for one reason – so they can learn.
Before that, though, we have to promise those parents one critical thing – that we can keep their children safe. We have to be on our toes because with this many children and thousands of adults around, we have a lot of moving parts. We all know what it means to treat each other with respect and with dignity. Most of the people who work for us know it too. I’d even go so far as saying that most of our children know it too. It’s an inherent quality – maybe it’s the golden rule. Whether we’ve formally been taught this or not, we know from an early age that we want to feel safe and that other people do too. That’s why you see children run to hug other crying children that they don’t even know.
Most of us understand this, but unfortunately, there are no absolutes when it comes to human behavior. There will be students, teachers, even parents who cross these lines. Some may not even realize they’re doing it, and what we’re left with are students who hate school from an early age.
Think about a four year old you’ve known in your life. If you’re a parent who’s driven your children across the country, did they try to count to 100 or to whatever high number they could reach? Did they sing? If you stopped at a national monument or a historical marker, did they listen intently as you read it to them? A four year old who can’t read, but who has been exposed to parents who not only can, but do, will pick up a book and make up a story. A four year old will play in the dirt, swing from a tree limb, dance, and color on the walls. They’ll even watch TV and learn a foreign language if you show it to them.
When you think about it, there isn’t a single academic content area that a four year old WON’T participate in. So why does that change? Do we do something to change it?
First of all, not all of the children we get are anything like the four year olds we were or the ones that we have raised. Some children come to us hungry and scared. And some just come and go, come and go. Our job then, is to teach them as well as we can for as long as we have them, and to remember that we might be the best experience they ever have in school.
Sometimes, the difference we make is obvious. We see students succeed academically. They win awards. They get scholarships. They come back from college and slap us on the back and tell us they never would have made it without us. Sometimes, though, we don’t see it at all.
I’ve carried a note around with me from job to job for the last 17 years. It was written by a freshman who was having a bad day. Apparently, I said something to help. She wrote:
I just want to thank you for your concern. Not many people would take the time to ask how someone was doing. My friends don’t even seem to care sometimes. Thank you again. It means a lot to me.
At the time I received the note, I didn’t remember what I had said to her. Years and jobs later, I really don’t recall. I messaged that student on Facebook a few weeks ago and showed her a picture I took of the note. She remembered it even better than I did.
Maybe another story illustrates our importance even better. One time when I was a principal, the chief of police was waiting for me in my office at 7:00 am on a Monday. We had a student – a ninth grader – whose parents had been in a fight the night before. It took all night to get the dad out of the house and get him to jail. Our student, who was often in trouble and really didn’t care about school, also had his own temper. Little things would set it off. This was no little thing.
I addressed my staff that morning at our scheduled faculty meeting and gave them the details I could. Since this was a small school and everybody knew everybody, there wasn’t a teacher who didn’t need to know that the student would be even more on edge that day. Towards the end of the meeting, I asked them to show some understanding, and if he needed to excuse himself from class because he was about to explode, that they needed to let him come see me voluntarily. One teacher stood up and said, “But Mr. Cobb, rules are rules!” Without thinking, I responded, “Yeah, but we have to love the kids more than we love the rules.” I think for most of my teachers, that was my defining moment as principal.
Rules are important. We can’t have chaos in our classrooms, our halls, our lunchrooms, our playgrounds, or on our buses. We also have to know when to bend. You have to love the kids more than you love the rules. You have to love the kids more than you love lots of things: the rules, your test scores, your won-loss record, your quiet little piece of the master schedule.
First, you love the kids. Then you keep them safe. Then you teach them.
So before we get to the first thing, we have two other things. Yes, school is about teaching and learning. Yes, it’s ok if you love physics or Spanish or English or programming or music.You should be passionate about what you teach. You should just be more passionate about who you teach.
How many times have we heard about the impact of music on math and literacy scores? While this is undeniable, what we forget is the impact of music, and art, and drama, and reading, and just all around curiosity, on the soul. All of these things matter in their own right, not just for some outcome tied to high-stakes testing.
Four year olds get this. We should too.
Let me close with a few words that I wrote last year at this time.
Work hard and contribute something. Be the first teacher that some student has ever liked. Don’t try to measure everything. Take pictures of the first group of students you teach and look at them from time to time. Make friends at work and defend your profession fiercely. Treasure your mentors. Cherish what you do. Most importantly, if you ever get to the point that you don’t love working for the children every day, leave. And if that’s the path you choose, leave on the highest note possible.
Those comments were written specifically for first year teachers, but I think they apply to all of us. I could tell you who my mentors have been, and rest assured, I treasure them. I also still have the picture of the first group of kids I taught in Muskogee in 1993.
For all the evidence my students have given me through the years that I’ve made an impact in their lives, I have more proof, tangible and personal, that they have made mine better. I used to say that your career doesn’t define who you are. I quit saying that a few years ago. This is who I am. I’m an educator. I’ve done this for half my life now. There’s no denying it. I’m proud of it, and I hope you will be too. I hope you’ll tell the world, too, after this year, two very important things:
- This is a great profession.
- This is a great place to work.
Have a great year!