Welcome to New Teachers
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!