Born to Teach

Hi, I’m Jonathan. I bring greetings from the great state of North Carolina! Guess what? Did you know that there are more English teachers in China than in America? And did you know that every hour, over 10 billion emails are sent. That’s more than one for every human. And did you know that if all seven plus billion members of the human race stood shoulder to shoulder we could all fit into Los Angeles? And did you know that right now, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months? This is an endlessly surprising world. And the more I’ve learned, the more there is to learn.

So it’s a good thing that I’m a teacher. And I have been a teacher for over twenty years. And my parents are both teachers. I was even born in a school – which is better, I suppose, than going to school in a hospital. I guess you’d say I’m a born educator.

As a kid, I wanted to know everything so I read voraciously. Books, books, books, my childhood home was filled with memoirs, biographies, poems, plays, magazines, newspapers, novels, and more novels. In the family room sat a huge unabridged Webster’s dictionary that was as big as my little brother. I could spend hours lost in that dictionary. When I was ten my parents saved up their money and bought an entire set of the World Book Encyclopedia. I can still remember the weight of those books, the feel of the cool leather in my hands, the white cover glistening with gold leaf lettering over the blue binding around the spine. The M book (#13) was so big, the S (#17) just huge and there was so much C knowledge that the C encyclopedia it had to be divided in two (C-Ch #3 then Ci-Cz #4). I would follow one entry to the next to the next, leapfrogging from Bach to Barcelona to Zanzibar and back to Astrophysics, and when I got the end I realized that it was really only the beginning.

Growing up, learning was ubiquitous. My erudite father would quiz us at dinner: what’s the tallest building in the world? Who invented the radio? What’s the capital of Mozambique? Then my mother, always the teacher, would lob one of her ethical grenades into our conversation. “Boys,” she would drawl in her genteel Georgia accent, “I have a moral dilemma. Our neighbor said that she didn’t want her daughter being taught by a Black teacher. Now what do you think I should have said to her?” Across the dinner table, we devoured the world and discovered the joy of learning. And when my extended family got together we’d argue about politics, religion, and social issues. We learned to listen, to think, and to speak our minds. It was thrilling.

But when I got to school the adventure of learning ended. We squeezed into our small desks and took notes. We memorized the bones in the body, the quadratic equation, the past tense of irregular verbs. The thrill was gone. By the way, the quadratic equation…don’t use it a lot these days. Tibia, fibula? The same. There was a whole lot more memorization than exploration, imagination, or inspiration. About the only thing I can remember from school was watching the second hand slowly circle the clock. As you can imagine, I wasn’t much of a students, but as soon as school let out, there was home where there were always books to read, questions to ask, things to learn.

Today there’s lots of things I love to do and I’m always running out of time every day to try to fit it all in. I love, love, love to travel and I always have, but when I was a kid we didn’t travel much. My dad was a lover of the great indoors so we stayed home most of the time and I learned to travel through books.

I also love listening to music. I’ve got a very broad palate when it comes to music but these days at the very top of my playlist is Brazilian music (oh, Caetano Veloso), Jazz (John Coltrane and Nina Simone are both from North Carolina!), Chopin’s preludes (majestic!), rock and roll (I love you: Arcade Fire), and, of course, the Beatles (they are their own category). I spent my best college days skipping class, listening to rock and roll records, and playing in a rock and roll band. I still like to go hear a good concert and I spend most of my disposable income buying music (my students don’t know what “buying” music even means). I walk to work every morning, miniscule speakers jangling in my ears, a spring in my step, rocking off to school.

And of course, I still love to read. Poems, plays, the newspaper, magazines, short stories, non-fiction, and most of all novels. And as much as I like to read, I love to write even more. So books remain a huge part of my life.

Now let me introduce you to a couple of the most important people in my life. I am but a planet in their orbit. My wife, Cary, and I moved back to our hometown a decade and a half ago. When we couldn’t find a bakery we liked, Cary, who turns wishes into action, started one. The bakery began with Cary baking pumpkin bread and cookies out of our kitchen, and has grown into a thriving bedrock of the local food scene. And here’s something important Cary has taught me: small things, done well turn into big things. There’s almost nothing Cary can’t do and our bakery is full of her magical creations. She’s a wonderful baker, an accomplished photographer (her gorgeous prints adorn the bakery walls), and a fabulous woodworker (the beautiful tables are built by her hand). Being a teacher is a creative act. Your classroom is your own little universe that you populate with your passions. Your lessons are your own little stage plays. Make your classroom into a place you love. Fill it with the things that animate you. People gravitate towards purposeful people. And even if your students aren’t passionate about what you are, you’ll inspire them to work hard at the things they like.

My son Owen is really good at tennis, because he loves tennis, which makes really great at tennis, which makes him like it even more. He’s obsessed and plays hours and hours on end. He’s only been playing two years, and he’s become a very accomplished player. I’ve already had to take tennis lessons myself to delay his inevitable tennis superiority. It didn’t work. One day, Owen’s tennis coach said a really smart thing, “Kids love being good at something.” And Owen has taught me a really important lesson: when someone finds the thing they truly love, there’s very little that will stop them from doing that. Help your students find what they love. Connect it to your class. Ride it like a unicorn. 

Oh, and here’s what I’ve learned form watching Owen play tennis. There’s a very simple little trick that Owen’s used to get really good at tennis. Shhhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anybody: he practices all the time. File that one away.

So I’ve been a public school teacher now for over 20 years. That’s 140 in dog years. That’s a lot of teaching. By my reckoning I’ve taught about 1500 students. I’ve also taught hundreds of teachers. So I teach. And I teach teachers to teach. But I never teach teachers to teach teachers. That would just be a bit too complicated.

I love teaching and I’ve learned a few lessons from my 20 plus years in the classroom.

1.     Explore. Our classrooms should be as exciting as the world! Show your students how much there is to explorer.

2.     Engage. Hook them with life’s splendor. Find that startling, wondrous, ironic, thrilling, majestic thing to catch their attention.

3.     Empower. Show them the power they have within themselves. Remind them often. Repeat. Then let them show you their power.

4.     Expect. Our expectations have the power to shape the world around us. Look for the best. Expect the best. Demand the best. You’ll probably get what you ask for, why not ask for their best?

5.     Passion. When someone finds the thing they truly love, there’s very little that will stop them from doing that. Help your students find what they love. Connect it to your class. Ride it like a unicorn. 

6.     Size up. Small things, done well turn into big things.

7.     Matter. Make it matter. Connect, connect, connect. If it doesn’t matter, its’s not worth doing.

8.     Do. Don’t say it when you can show it. Don’t show it when you can do it. Do.

9.     Mastery. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it sure doesn’t hurt and it can get you close. Practice, practice, practice.

10.  Autonomy. Disappear. Teach them to learn and then step away. Make yourself invisible. Erase yourself. According to the Zen saying, when the student is ready the master appears. But I think it’s as important to know that, when the student is ready, the master disappears. They’ve got an average of 62 more years without you.

I’m sharing the wonderful experiences and powerful lessons I’ve learned while teaching. Won’t you join me?