The Character Movement

student raising hand

Want to improve education? Focus on Impact.

By Steve Dornbach, Director of Programs – Teacher Frontiers

When students ask me, “Mr. Dornbach, why did you go into teaching?” My response is always quick and always the same, “Court ordered.” I go on to say, “I made some bad decisions in my life and the judge gave me a choice: ‘Teach kids or do some hard time.’ So I chose to teach.”

Now, of course, I’m joking! I always joke with my students – it keeps them on their toes! But there are always a few who are never quite sure or who never quite believe me. And that’s what I love about teaching high schoolers.

I have taught high school English for 21 years. And though I love what I do, it is an extremely challenging, ever-changing and often thankless job – one that few want to do themselves, but where many have opinions about how it should be done.

No doubt if you pay attention to the media, you hear countless opinions on how we should teach, assess, measure and “educate” our kids. I do all I can to impart knowledge, instill values and model character through the lessons and relationships I build each year, but it seems that year after year more emphasis, money, training and time gets placed on testing, assessments, scores and outcomes. We are feeding the end results. We’re not feeding the process. The end results are important components of how we educate, but they are not the life-giving, soul-filling reasons why I became a teacher or why most people go into teaching. As a result, there is less time allowed or significance placed on the process and the foundations that underpin learning, such as civility, kindness, collaboration and respect.

I’ve based my teaching on the models of the many great teachers I’ve had. These are teachers who made a significant impact on my life. I’m the person I am today due, in large part, to the amazing teachers, coaches, counselors and staff members who looked after me, taught me, encouraged and supported me as a young person. Every step of the way, I had people who put me above themselves to ensure that I learned, developed, grew and understood the full potential I had within me ­in the classroom, in the hallways, on the field and in my life.

If you are in education, if you teach, if you educate… you give. It’s inherent in everything you do. If you work in a school and with kids, you know that. From the moment those students walk into the building each morning to when they leave in the afternoon, they are under your care and under your watch. Those kids are the responsibility of everyone in that building ­­regardless of title or position.

And most educators carry that care and concern home, long after the school day has ended. That’s just how it is.

But most educators would also agree that though they give, they also receive… a lot! Educators receive so much from their students: ­interest, enthusiasm, appreciation. Perhaps it’s in the form of a hug, a drawing that says they’re the “Worlds Greatest Teacher” or it’s in the form of a thank-you note. That appreciation can be in response to the outcomes achieved, for sure, but that appreciation is certainly in response to the process that got them there along the way. It is difficult to stay focused on that and remember all the work that goes into the process, into the learning that creates the intended outcomes. But we need to. Outcomes, scores and results are fleeting – we continually try to improve, to better and to build upon our learning. But it’s hard when the focus is on those fleeting outcomes and not the enduring process.

In a culture that is fleeting – where words, images, messages continually bombard us ­­(just think Twitter and Snapchat) – teachers need to know that the impact they have on kids is lasting. The effect, the impact, the permanence a teacher has on a child’s life is not just a Tweet or a Snapchat image that disappears into the ether or a test score that quickly disappears from the public’s consciousness.

It is real, it is lasting, it carries weight for a lifetime. Teachers need to know they make a powerful impact through the work they do. Thank you to all those who educate, who teach and who make a lasting, positive difference in our kids’ lives.

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