Awesome! Or Awful!

One of the themes that has already popped up multiple times in our getting-ready-to-go-back-to-school meetings is the power to influence we hold as teachers, especially the power our words have. And not just our words, but our example and attitude.

At my school, which is a pretty nice, suburban public high school, we have an incredible variety of kids. Everything from rich to poor; Texan to Nigerian; Californian to Albanian; all religions and beliefs; all family structures imaginable; mansions to homeless. And it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking all of our kids are doing fine. If you ask someone in the hallway, kid, administrator, or teacher, how they’re doing, they’ll likely say just that: “Fine.” And it’s easy to forget how much impact and influence we can have every day, for good or for bad.

One simple word or sentence. One expression of body language. One word or gesture of welcome or of rejection. Since we don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes, what’s really happening with our kids, we run the risk of screwing up when we have the opportunity to do so much good. I’ve said a gazillion times how we remember our teachers – as far back as kindergarten. But I don’t remember my clients from when I was a lawyer; I’m sure those clients don’t remember me. When I was a lawyer, interactions were more focused and usually more brief and episodic. And when I didn’t have meetings scheduled, I could easily go a day or two with very limited interpersonal interaction. And as a result, I didn’t have nearly the influence or power I have today.

Because you see this teaching thing is different. We are with these kids every day for 3 months, 6 months, maybe 9 months. Maybe over multiple years. Sure, it’s only an hour (in my case 74 minutes) a day, and there are 20 or 30 at a time sharing in that togetherness. But I suspect for some of my kids I may be with them as much or more than their parents. It’s an interesting relationship we develop with our students. And because we teachers are older and have a position of so-called authority, our influence is magnified.

I’ll never forget the time I tried to tease a student who had to change out of my class for scheduling reasons, and because I was careless and flip and the student didn’t know me well, I teased in a way that was hurtful to them. Fortunately for me, they let me know, and I was able to explain and apologize. But I’ve never made that mistake again. And I’m much much more careful and aware of how I say thing to my students. And I’ll never ever forget the student this past year I encouraged by simply complimenting him on how hard he was working and how he has told me what a difference that made in his life.

This is a scary job.

Often I feel guilty for being so tired and stressed when a school day is over. It’s not like I’m in the 90 degree heat digging a ditch, putting on a roof, or working on an assembly line. When I was a lawyer, I worked on big big deals – involving tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. There was pressure to do everything perfect and there was big money involved, both in the deal and in the fees. But the pressure of being in front of a hundred or more kids a day, every day, with every word, every gesture, every action, every example being watched by dozens of eyes is unlike any pressure I ever experienced as a lawyer. And knowing how the words and examples of a teacher can influence and change lives only exacerbates that pressure. Why am I tired? Because I hold this power to do good or to do harm with every word and movement I make, from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm every school day for 178 days, now through May.

I’ve got a week to get ready for this coming school year. A week from tomorrow my words and example will be back on stage every day. I pray that I will remember the power of my words to influence; to encourage; to support; to lift up; to inspire. I pray too that I will remember the power of my words to destroy; to hurt; to discourage; to humiliate; to sting. I pray that God will give me the wisdom and the patience to use my words and my example for good and not for ill this school year.

I pray that every day, I’ll have that one word that makes a positive difference in someone’s life.

Every day. One word.