My grandpa used to have this thing where, even when I was in high school, at the end of a visit with him he would grab me by the shoulders and kiss me on the lips, and he’d look me in the eyes and say, “David, I love you and I’m proud of you.” He did this with all of us grandchildren.
There are about 1,000 reasons why I owe a huge debt to my grandfather’s legacy, but this ritual line of his is what I want to think on today. Here’s what my grandfather’s words have taught me about teaching.
“I love you”
On more than one occasion, Grandpa had to have hard talks with me. I can remember, for example, one time when my cousin and I recklessly broke a remote-controlled race car he had purchased for the grandkids. He didn’t say, “Oh, that’s okay” — he told us that it was wrong to treat something as carelessly as we had, that our destructive behavior wasn’t acceptable.
But Grandpa ended the difficult conversations with the same, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” In doing this, he affirmed that even when we messed up, he was for us. Effective classroom management and quality student-teacher relationships are built on the same idea: yesterday, Calvin may have done something disrespectful; after I address the issue with Calvin, I need reaffirm, to him and to myself, that I am still his teacher, still in his corner.
This idea of being consistently for our students — especially our difficult ones — is challenging to live out, just as it was challenging for my grandfather to live (rather than merely to say) that he loved me. Grandpa’s words meant something because years of watching him proved they were true — true when we were with him and true when we weren’t. You never got the sense that Grandpa was torn between loving us and not; I can’t imagine him complaining about us to other adults or gossiping about us — a habit we teachers can so easily fall into.
Well, Dave, you might say, if you’re implying we teachers need to be that way toward our students, c’mon now. We’re just human. Our students aren’t our flesh and blood like you were your grandpa’s.
Yet I believe it’s possible to achieve a teacher version of loving all of my students like my grandpa loved me. I almost daily fall short of this kind of love, but I do pray for a heart that loves my students each year; I do resist the pieces of me that want to hold grudges against my freshmen for not taking me seriously or disregarding my advice. Perfection isn't possible, but consistent effort toward being for our kids is.
Grandpa’s words also meant something because he was there. He was at sporting events, he cared about report cards, he worked with my dad and I on home improvement projects. When he said, “I love you,” his words hit and had substance because of his presence.
As teachers, we can’t be present for our dozens of students like my grandpa was for his six grandkids. I wish it was possible to be the teacher in the movie who attends every student’s special event each year while also being the husband who is true to his vows and the dad who does right by his own children.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t do simple things to be there for our kids as teachers. We can be present for our students when we decide to come up with simple systems for remembering kids’ birthdays. We can be present when we stop trading planning time for time spent complaining or venting about kids.
Finally, in the simple, repeated “I love you,” my grandpa communicated to me that emotional courage is an admirable trait. I try to provide a classroom and curriculum for my students that I would want my own children to have. Putting Haddie, Laura, and Marlena in as substitutes for Emily, Ebonye, and Dylan means working for the latter group not out of duty, but out of love. It means thinking about teaching from an internal scoreboard standpoint.
When we teach like this, I think it’s both brave and accurate for us to tell our classes that we love them.
And, every year, I do tell them that. This is largely because of my grandpa.
“I’m proud of you”
While Grandpa’s “I love you” communicated unreserved affirmation, “I’m proud of you” spoke of achievements past and achievements to come. When my grandpa would say “I’m proud of you,” my heart heard:
- You have worked hard, and that hard work is paying off.
- You are growing into a good man.
- I am confident in you and who you will be.
- I am glad to claim you as mine; I like being associated with you.
In Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel write that
The stories we create to understand ourselves become the narratives of our lives, explaining the accidents and choices that have brought us to where we are: what I’m good at, what I care about most, and where I’m headed.
When someone we respect says, “I’m proud of you,” I think this shapes our internal “stories.” I realize this is an audacious claim, that such simple words can help us see ourselves as people of accomplishment. Yet I believe it’s true, and its truth gives us a clear, career-level objective.
That is, we need to earn the respect of our students so that our words of affirmation reverberate across their lives. This is a campaign won one interaction, one relationship, one lesson at a time. Nine years into the work, I’ve come to see it’s frustrating and only moderately effective to try to engineer student respect; it’s much more efficient and beneficial, for everyone in our lives, if we instead work at becoming someone respectable. We do this by waging war on our careless habits, our selfish tendencies, our propensities to waste time; we keep our eyes on who we want to become, on what we want to look back upon if we make it to well-aged deathbeds, on how our stated priorities compare to our evinced ones. I did this in my first year of teaching when I sold my Super Nintendo, in my third year of teaching when I returned books I had stolen from a university library while in college, in my year off from teaching when I worked many jobs to support my wife’s final year of undergraduate work, and this past weekend when I chose my family over the pile of work I needed to get done. I do this every time that I decide to face the evidence that I'm not yet earning the respect of every kid rather than ignore the evidence, pretending that it's the kid's problem for not respecting me, not my own.
Part of the benefit of getting to know my grandpa when he was in his fifties and sixties was seeing the long-term effects of this kind of quiet, sustained, setback-marked effort. Grandpa’s story wasn’t one of overnight success, but by the time of his retirement he had achieved excellence at work and excellence at home. He attributed this to hard work, problem-solving, treating people right, and maintaining a good attitude. All of his children and grandchildren strive for excellence in the same ways.
Could a teacher have saved my grandpa’s life?
Unfortunately, Dean Lewis Stuart’s life came to an end prematurely. I can’t help but think that a teacher — just one teacher — could have saved his life.
In 2002, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, Gramps was killed at a quiet country intersection a mile from my house. He and my grandma were driving home from a visit with my dad and step-mom, and they were struck by a sad, drunk man who didn’t stop at the four-way.
The driver, not his teachers, is responsible for what happened that day. I hold no ill will against the driver, either. His life had turned out sad, he made selfish decisions, and his selfish decisions ended up costing a man his life, a wife her husband, and many people their hero.
But I do wonder, since studies suggest that even tiny interventions can create significantly positive effects, what would have happened had that driver, back when he was a high school student, somehow had me as a teacher? Could I have said the right thing, created the right lesson, or maybe given the right writing assignment and somehow set the then-young man on a different course from the one that intersected with my grandfather that day, fourteen years ago?
Yes. Yes. A million times yes. If we don't believe that, then what are we doing?
That kind of potential is in every day that we work with students. That’s why this is a noble profession, and why it’s hard, and why it’s good.
In memory of and gratitude for Gramps, who died 14 years ago this week. We love and miss you.