Teach on a Beach

Very early on in my career as an educator (and while still a bachelor), I took a date for a picnic on an isolated, sun-drenched strand of beach located roughly 7,500 miles away from Los Angeles. Despite it being a hot, summer day, there was literally no one within eyesight or earshot on that particular stretch of Mediterranean shoreline.  After taking a quick dip to cool off, we spread out our towels and unpacked the elements of our meal. While opening a bottle of local wine, I mused to myself, “Can it possibly get any better than this?”  No sooner had I entertained the prospect of perfection realized than a scratchy adolescent voice descended from the ridge of sand behind and above us.  “Hey, Mom…look!,” the voice shouted.  “It’s Mr. Reynolds!”  Incredibly, a scrawny, thirteen-year-old boy who had been one of my students during the prior school year was standing not twenty yards distant, his mother at his side.

Lunch for four wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but manners (and public relations for the school that employed me) demanded that I extend an invitation to join us, and my date good-naturedly followed my lead. Though my student’s mother made several gracious attempts to beat a hasty retreat, her son was having none of it.  Encountering a teacher out of context may be off-putting to some, but this kid’s eyes grew big as saucers as he began peppering me with a torrent of questions that revealed a surprising eagerness to learn as much as he could about the most mundane aspects of my life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was being treated like a celebrity. Though I felt there was no way I merited such attention, it was clear that my student was even more excited just to just hang out with his teacher than I was to be on what had promised to be a “perfect date.”

That encounter took place four decades ago.  I don’t know about my student, but here I am, recalling the moment and writing about the lasting impact it had on me. I’m quite sure it was the first time I realized what a profound opportunity teachers have to leave their personal imprint upon the lives of others, and what awesome responsibility that entails. With the passage of time and the accumulation of perspective, I have also learned that if one is subject to “surveillance” on a seemingly deserted beach, how much more cognizant must one be in the presence of others.  A corollary for teachers is that we remain with our students across time and space.

Each step of my professional career has taken me farther away from the classroom, and the further removed I’ve become, the more my respect and admiration for teachers has grown.  Despite revolutionary advances in technology, shifting curricular frameworks and standards, new learning environments and evolving educational delivery systems, the teacher remains the single most significant in-school determinant of students’ academic success, or failure.

In private schools, the expectations and demands faced by teachers are pronounced.  Tuition-paying parents insist upon more than superior instruction; they want accessibility and responsiveness to their individual needs, in addition to those of their children. Scarce resources and the constant challenge of holding the line on tuition often translate into an expanded role-set in which teachers are called upon to shoulder a growing number of out-of-classroom responsibilities. The assessment, evaluation and reporting of students’ academic progress goes far beyond the recording of letter grades and the interpretation of standardized test scores.  And direct accountability to parents means the pressure on private school teachers is acute and continuous.

Like it or not, all teachers serve as adult role models whose behavior is on display before impressionable children and adolescents, five-days-a-week. Students aren’t just observing how a teacher explains auxiliary verbs or complementary angles; they’re dedicated observers of teacher behavior across broad swaths of human conduct.  Whereas every school expects its teachers to be persons of good character, private schools take it a step further, charging teachers with the responsibility of personifying a school’s ethos.  The teacher is the carrier of a private school’s DNA.

If that kid who messed up my day at the beach really did see me as some kind of celebrity, God bless him.  (Indeed, ours is a society that suffers from vast confusion between celebrity and significance.)  I certainly didn’t merit such awe, but the profession of teaching does.  Few teachers are celebrities, but every teacher can, and should be significant.

National Teacher Day is May 8, 2018. Sometime between now and then, I encourage you to let a teacher know what a significant difference he, or she has made in your life, or in the lives of others.  Let them know that they were the one who opened your soul to poetry, taught you how to disagree with someone without insulting them, made math exciting, believed in you when you doubted yourself, brought history to life, helped you learn to think like a scientist, or inspired you to become an educator, yourself. Be that kid at the beach. Make a teacher feel like a star.

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