The School of Hard Knocks

By Steven Law

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 8:00 p.m. MDT

The truth is, 22 of the 24 kids were great. They were quiet, calm, and well-behaved. They stayed at their desks, they were prepared to learn. They raised their hands when they had a question. But once Maddening Max and Devious Derek got their Magical Chaos Engine running at 10,000 RPMs the other kids were inevitably pulled into its vortex.

The power paradigm has shifted greatly in the thirty years since I was in grade school. Back then teachers had the power. They could send you to the principal’s office, who then, depending on the severity of your infraction, either gave you a lecture, paddled you on the bum with an actual paddle, called your parents and told them you were misbehaving and disrupting the class, or expelled you. The worst one was when he called your parents.

But nowadays it’s the kids who have the power. Nowadays it’s the students who call their parents, and tell them that the teacher just talked back to them using a stern voice. And the parents then threaten to sue the school district.

But the most troubling revelation of the day came when I saw myself, the me of thirty years ago, in Devious Derek. Which makes me want to add this real quick: Sorry Mrs. Winget. Sorry Mr. Curtis. Sorry Mr. Sitterud. I too had been a devilish little class clown. Well played Karma, well played.

It has been a year and a half since my terrible day as a substitute teacher. In writing this story I went back to Dante Elementary and sat down with Mrs. Awesome to ask her how she did it.

Mrs. Awesome’s real name is Marcy Hadean. She has been teaching elementary school for 22 years. She was in college pursuing a different major when one day she realized that she wanted to be a school teacher. “Oh no, I started out wanting something a lot more glamorous,” she tells me. “But somewhere along the way I realized that I wanted to do something that was fulfilling.”

Mrs. Hadean, like all school teachers, spends many of her nights and weekends grading papers, and preparing lessons plans. But that’s okay, she says. For the Mrs. Hadeans of the world teaching isn’t a job, it’s a calling, taken up because they believe they can make the world a better place by teaching and shaping tomorrow’s leaders, thinkers and innovators.

Most of the kids come to class ready and eager to learn, says Mrs. Hadean. They’re bursting with thoughts and ideas that sometimes need some gentle shaping and direction from their teacher.

Typically a teacher is the second most influential adult on a child’s life, second only to the child’s parents, due to the sheer volume of time the teacher and child spend together. This puts teachers in a unique position of influence. It is often a teacher who first observes a gift or ability that the child possesses. Quite often the teacher recognizes a student’s gift before the student does, and it is often the teacher who shows their student that they possess a unique talent, and it is often the teacher who nurtures the newly-discovered gift and talents.

And for some students, it’s a sad fact that their teacher may be the only adult in their life who’s taking an active role in their interests and their well-being. Their teacher may be the only adult who asks about their day, who cares about their dreams, who helps them envision a brighter future, who helps them formulate goals. Their teacher may be the only adult who offers them support, and encouragement.

Teaching is only one of many roles that a school teacher plays in a day. In a typical day a teacher will be a psychologist, cheerleader, detective, and exploration trip leader. And bee.

Each student is like a tiny little tree covered with hundreds of blossoms, each blossom a potential idea that may or may not grow into an apple of knowledge, and only parents will germinate more of those blossoms than the teachers in the child’s life.

And every germinated blossom will grow into an apple of knowledge, an important skill, or a useful talent that the student will go on to share with the world throughout the rest of their life. And inside each apple lie the seeds of greatness.

But this isn’t accomplished by showing up with a power-tie and a pirate joke. “It’s all about developing a genuine relationship with them,” says Mrs. Hadean. “During the course of the school year they get to know me and I get to know them, and they open up. They share a lot. They learn that their teacher cares. They learn to trust us. There’s safety in that. And everything else grows from that.”

How many ships of discovery have teachers launched? How many dormant seeds have been awakened under their sunshine? How many of today’s great leaders, scientists and thinkers can point back to a specific moment when one of their teachers noticed, and pointed out, that they had a gift for what they went on to do?

It has been said by many, and repeated by many more, that our children are our greatest resource. What then, should we call the resource that cares for, educates and nurtures our greatest resource? How about just teacher.

And what’s more they’re willing to give their entire adult lives to it, with little fanfare, and a small paycheck. That is the very definition of dedication, devotion, and love.

And there’s just no substitute for that.

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Steven Law is a regular contributor to ksl.com writing primarily science and outdoor articles.

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