Will Ellery and the Swimming Pool
Photo illustration by Lauren Lu
When I was approached to write my perspective on how I see things, I felt very much like a student who persistently asks questions in trying to pin down the details of an open-ended assignment. I began by considering the many hats I wear, but I realized that doesn’t meet the needs of the audience. It would likely wander, and it would definitely be dull. What the assignment calls for is how I see things from the front of the room. My lens is different from yours. So you will get my teacher perspective. Caution: it might still be dull.
For all of my 21 years of teaching, I have very much looked forward to the first day of school. Don’t get me wrong; I know I will miss the swimming pool, especially on 90-degree Indiana August days, but every first day brings with it new faces and new opportunities. I see my students as the kids that they are: still young, energetic and certain that they are right, that adults don’t really understand them and hoping that I can help them on their way up the ladder. I see confidence, shyness, wariness and concern. As the days go on, I see humor, false bravado and a beautiful innocence. And I see kids who also would rather be at the swimming pool.
I also see what kids might be, what they could be, and that is both exciting and frustrating. When I was a student at Indiana University, I took the coaching course that legendary basketball coach Bob Knight taught. The course mostly dealt with the philosophy of motivating people. One of the pearls of wisdom that he imparted to us was to not reach the end of our college days and wonder what might have been, or to wish–like kids playing Whiffle ball in the backyard and arguing about fair or foul and ultimately settling on a “do-over” (although a more modern metaphor might be resetting your video game, this old teacher offers cynically)–that they could have the days back. It’s where I learned to embrace the idea of not letting your academics get in the way of your education. Sadly, for many students, academic performance alone is the endgame. I see potential from the front of the room, and it’s not based on test scores. Often I’m blown away by what students are capable of achieving. One of the great rewards of this profession is seeing what kids become when they marshal their talents.
I see potential from the front of the room, and it’s not based on test scores. Often I’m blown away by what students are capable of achieving. One of the great rewards of this profession is seeing what kids become when they marshal their talents.
As I approach nearly a quarter of a century of teaching (and yes, I am acutely aware that makes me ancient), perhaps the skill that has been sharpened most has been the ability to see what makes kids tick. Honestly, it is probably the most important thing a teacher needs to learn to do. It enables one to connect with students on a personal level, to find out what matters most to them and to meet their needs individually. There is no great mystery to this job. We don’t hold the keys to all things yet to be discovered. Students can learn history with or without me. My job, as I see it, is to try to make learning matter to them on a personal level. I can see hurdles in front of them, as I have the benefit of a history with thousands of students illuminating the path. I simply need to provide some light, and that means knowing which path the kids desire to travel–not in terms of a destination, but in terms of a journey. The journey, after all, is what matters.
Through this wandering introspection, I have tried to touch on what I see from the front of the room. In my head, I keep going back to an experience with a student from many years ago. It was a situation that every teacher can understand. I looked out over the audience of students, and I saw one student smiling, almost smirking at me. You see, I knew that he was smarter than me. He knew that he was smarter than me. I knew that he knew that he was smarter than me. Worst of all, he knew that I knew that he was smarter than me. But what I saw that mattered most was beneath the genius; I glimpsed an awkward, unsure teenager. I gave him the tools to succeed in history, but we worked on his sense of self in what proved to be a far more important task. From the front of the class, I learned to see the students, not simply look over a sea of faces, and, in the words of Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.
But I still miss the swimming pool.
William “Will” Ellery, social studies teacher and IB coordinator, wrote this column. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Acumen or the Acumen staff. You may reach Mr. Ellery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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