Teaching Moments

I will never forget my first day in the classroom, nearly twenty-six years ago. All had gone relatively well: I’d taught five classes, supervised a study hall, and caught a quick meal during my thirty-minute lunch period. I had made it to the end of my final period—the last minutes before my thirty-or-so students would be set free to attack the waning days of summer. The bell rang, signifying the end of class and the day, and something happened that I will never forget: the students jumped up while I was still speaking. Not only did they completely ignore the fact that I was in the middle of a sentence, but they actually seemed oblivious to the fact that I even existed. And then it happened . . .

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I exclaimed, raising my voice just slightly above the rumbling of books and feet. It was almost instinctual. And incredibly, all thirty-or-so adolescents froze, almost in mid-air, and slowly turned their eyes to me as if to ask, now what? I was stunned. I honestly hadn’t expected such obedience. “The bell is not your teacher,” I said. “I am, and I am not done giving the assignment for tomorrow.”

All teachers experience “teaching moments” like this throughout their careers. Those moments are usually an opportunity for teachers to impart some vital, timely knowledge or wisdom to their students. Yet, I have found that these opportunities are often as much about the teacher as they are about the learner. With my end-of-the-first-day power play, for example, both my students and I learned valuable lessons. The students’ lesson? The bell doesn’t save you in Mr. Scott’s class. The lessons for me? If you expect it, they will meet it. Also, begin class with the end in mind; post and bring attention to the assignment at the beginning of class.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever having been taught—during my methods classes in college or anywhere else—how to stop students from running out of the class when the bell rings. (Of course, there is the possibility that I missed that class.) Some of the most powerful teaching lessons happen in real time, in the classroom. Of course, there’s a need for teacher preparation experiences that truly ready teachers for actual classrooms, and I am happy to see the field moving in that direction.

But there is another way to impart readiness: read actual stories from the field. This is what’s in store for you in What I Didn’t Know. These practitioners speak from the heart and the intellect, bringing the reader into close contact with both the sage on the stage and the guides on the side. Whether in elementary schools or high schools, these teachers chronicle real stories about real students in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the United States (and, in a couple of cases, internationally). If you’re an educator, reading about some of these students may prompt memories of similar students from your own experience. If you’re a parent, you will begin to gain a new appreciation for the joys and challenges of building America’s future by teaching its children. As a former teacher and, now, an educational leader who works to elevate and celebrate great teaching and teachers, reading these stories made me think of my own unforgettable classroom experiences.

For example, the day one of my senior students, Tracey, asked to talk to me after class. I could tell that something was wrong; Tracey was usually full of life and energy, with a smile that you couldn’t help but respond to in kind. After class we found a quiet room where we could talk. There, she shared with me that she was pregnant and wasn’t sure what to do. She talked about the internal and external struggles she was experiencing. As you might imagine, these difficulties centered on her family, her boyfriend, her peers, and—most of all—herself. This was a first for me, and I was at a loss for what to do. She begged me not to tell anyone, and I felt compelled not to betray her trust. So, I just listened to her. I really don’t remember saying much at all. I just remember her sitting, talking, crying, and talking some more—all the time pleading for me not to share this information with others, which I promised I would not. So, I just listened and then went home and prayed for her.

Soon after our talk, Tracey’s smile returned and she seemed to be herself again. Because this was happening close to the end of the year, I had no way of knowing what decision Tracey had made. While I continued to wonder, I learned another powerful lesson. I learned how important it is to be there for students. I learned that, most of the time, the best approach is not to tell them what to do or to speak from your own belief system, but rather just to be there, listening, reminding them that they matter enough to be heard. 

This story highlights another key theme that runs through the stories in this collection—teachers are often called upon to occupy roles that go well beyond teaching content. Make no mistake: the role of teaching content is critical and, in my opinion, our number-one responsibility. However, as the saying goes, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. In Mary Ann Hutcheson’s “An Honor and a Privilege,” for example, a teacher guides an entire classroom toward embracing, rather than shunning, a fellow classmate who has done everything imaginable to rebuff the teacher and his fellow students. The teacher’s wise guidance and show of love leads to a poignant moment, which then opens up the floodgates for reciprocal kindness from the student who has caused the most hurt.

Such displays of love, care, and respect must accompany rigorous and challenging teaching and learning. In my experience, one of the pitfalls that some teachers fall into is the erroneous assumption that it is wrong to push vulnerable students too hard. The logic goes that these students face unbearable challenges and conditions outside of the classroom. Consequently, for these students, school should be a safe, caring, and nurturing environment. It should be a place where students have agency, a way to counter the uncontrollable nature of their environments outside of school. And while I agree with some of that, I am happy to say that this collection also includes stories where teachers take issue with the notion that vulnerable students need to be protected and coddled, not “pushed.” Sure, that pressure and push should be personalized from student to student. Sure, the pressure and push should be accompanied by an authentic relationship with and personal interest in the student—but pressure and academic push must be there.

After fifteen years in the classroom, I became a principal, and students would occasionally come to my office to complain about a teacher. I would provide a listening ear for a few minutes, but if I saw the conversation shifting toward concern about how hard the teacher was on the student, I would abruptly interrupt the student and say something to the effect of, the next time you see this teacher, I want you to thank him or her for caring enough to hold you to high standards. Like children who can’t fully appreciate the methods of their caring but strict parents, these students would leave my office somewhat unconvinced. But I can’t tell you the number of times that those same students—years later, sometimes—would come back to visit those teachers who had relentlessly applied that gentle pressure, in the same way (as one of my mentors used to describe it) that diamonds are made. Henry Brooks Adams has written that “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” The stories collected here show how these influences begin.

Regarding Tracey, the student who just needed me to listen as she dealt with an unexpected pregnancy: when the year came to a close, I lost track of her. However, one day during the following year, I was teaching and a knock came at the door. I went to open the door, and there stood Tracey—but not alone. She was holding her newborn son in her arms. She had made the decision that was best for her and her circumstances. She would go on to ask me to do the honor of marrying her to her boyfriend, which, of course, I agreed to do.

I’m reminded of a short, powerful poem by American poet and state legislator John James Ingalls on the importance of seizing the day. In “Opportunity,” Ingalls uses personification to implore us, through Opportunity’s voice: “I knock unbidden once at every gate! // If sleeping, wake—if feasting, rise before / I turn away.” For teachers, every day you walk into the classroom is an opportunity to impact lives. The following enriching stories will show readers how teachers all across America are maximizing these opportunities.

Welcome to their classrooms.