What Inspires You?

At the evening session of Communities for Learning, the question of “What Inspires You?” was posed. I sat listening as educators shared personal passions like photography and nature and Art and thinking that what inspires me is my work. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at in my lifetime. The chance to make a difference for children? What could possibly be more inspiring?

School was an incredible experience for me as a child. Teachers are the people who took care of me in the sixth grade when my father was seriously injured in a coal mining cave-in and my mother was consumed with caring for him through rehab. Teachers are the people, along with my mom and my grandparents, who encouraged me to try everything from leadership roles in clubs to acting in the Sr. Class Play to competing in DECA. My father was very strict and not at all “inspiring”, I wasn’t permitted to date or to go anywhere but he allowed me to do anything that was school related. So I joined everything! School was the place where I began to learn what I was good at and what I was better off leaving to others with more ability and talent. I’m grateful for those experiences and I am compelled to recreate them for our students. It’s the reason we’ll be supporting two musicals next year, not just one for HS, but one for ES too. Look at the huge number of students who are touched by that experience!

I’m most inspired by those experiences that we create that touch students who aren’t connected to us through academic or athletic success. For those of you who will remember, it’s why I started the Randolph Rumble in 2002-03—to showcase the talents of an amazing group of young men who were disenfranchised in our system. In talking to them because they wouldn’t participate in gym class or for disciplinary reasons, I learned that they had a band called Post Mortem. At that point I asked them to perform at the Randolph Rumble–a culminating activity originally designed as a school wide behavior management program to improve attendance and school climate. They rocked that auditorium and from that day forward those boys were somebody in our school, they had an identity and a voice. And every one of them graduated and continues to be successful today. It’s one of the moments in my career that most inspired me and of which I’m most proud.

Another is Joe Tyler. When I arrived at Gowanda, Joe was in the 9th grade and his dad saw me in the hall one evening. At that point it didn’t look like Joe was headed for much academic success. His dad told me, “I need that boy to go to BOCES and learn a trade so he can get work some day”. Because Joe was technically a 9th grader and BOCES occurs in 11th-12th grade, it wasn’t typical to send him. I said, “I’ll send him to BOCES for a trade!” and handing Joe Tyler his HS diploma was one of the best moments of my whole life. He found what worked for him and graduated from HS.

Our kids and helping them find success and happiness, that’s what inspires me. Every time one of our students walks through my door to talk to me about something, that what fuels me. How about you?

  1. Yes, I remember when you did that for Joe. Now he is doing us proud as a US Marine.

    I also am inspired whenever I see really good teaching, be it in the movies, on TV, in a classroom, in the mall, at camp, wherever it may be.

    My daughter Erin inspired me this weekend. She was feeling down because she had to yell at a very difficult camper who is ruining the program for everyone. The program is called camp swap, and her girls spend the first week at her camp, then go experience life at another camp. We just found out today that they switched people around so she can continue to work with this troubled child at the second camp this week. That shows a lot of faith in a 19 year old counselor who is ahead of her time.

    My best story from school this year is with the core group of kids that kept asking to stay after school in my computer room this year at the Middle School where I returned to after several years away. Within the first few weeks I found out the reason was that one of the girls didn’t want to go home where she would be alone with her two very troubled brothers until her father arrived. She was getting her friends stay after with her 2-3 days per week for the entire year. I could see that this girl was riding the fence between becoming like her brothers or more like some of her friends where she made some good choices. So a laid down some simple ground rules, but then pretty much let them hang out unconditionally. They were always very appreciated, and I only had to correct their behavior a few times all year despite the fact that there were anywhere from 4 to 14 5th graders on any given night.

    The reward was in how I got to see this child grow and mature during the year. She toned down her volume, became more patient of others, improved her dress, started wearing her glasses all the time, and upped her grades. When our principal asked me if I would like to be a part of the school’s awards night, it was partly with her in mind that I did not hesitate to say yes. Her’s was not the highest average, and she was not the fastest at keyboarding, but I did include her with one of several honorable mentions.

    I could see the the pride in her eyes as she lit up across the stage to accept her award. But what was even more rewarding, was when a few speakers later, our principal called her up again for a special award and introduced her as the fifth grade student who showed the most growth for that year.

    I have been an educator for going on 28 years now, and I have a book of stories like this. I am glad that I don’t have to be poor to be a teacher, but I wish more people would realize that for many of us, it is not the pay that keeps us going.

  2. Thanks for a great story that brought me to tears. You have a great gift that allows you to connect with people. Your past is your treasure. Your story and connection with the band Post Mortem reminds me of Henri Nouwen’s, Wounded Healer. Your past difficulties or obstacles growing up are the very things that allow you to connect with students and community too.

    I like your story of Joe and identify with it as I had a similar experience with a middle school student about 15 years ago. Because of my own upbringing and father who frequently made my life difficult I was able to connect with and help a young man to be successful in class and eventually to graduate from high school. I believe that our job as educators is as much about transformation as it is about teaching and learning. Afterall, education at it’s root is a process of “leading out,” and frequently that process is impeded by fear or a “wound” if you will in the learner.

  3. I always love a story, real story, of overcoming the odds. I recently read a book titled Fearless about a navy seal who died in Afghanistan, consequently the same time I was there and the same region. Anyways that wasn’t the inspiring part what was inspiring was the fact he over came a laundry list of felonies and an addiction to crack to become an elite servicemen who in the end was a hero. Overcoming the odds that’s what gets me going.

  4. Once again you brought tears to my eyes. One of my favorite books is “Wounded Healer,” by Henri Nouwen. Wounded Healer Link is about the power of our woundedness to help others. It’s our wounds and that make us human and invite conversations with others. What a wonderful idea and act to invite those young men into the process. You changed their lives forever. I think the most important thing we do as educators is to be instruments of personal and institutional transformation.

    About 15 years ago I had an experience like the one you had with Joe. I got to teach summer school that year and my student was a young man who had been wounded badly in a dysfunctional home settings. Some of my peers at the time described him as “savage.” I chose to ignore his attire and demeanor and instead focused on his strengths and we connected. He had been in danger of dropping out of school and instead eventually went to BOCES where he excelled at culinary arts. He graduated from high school and is a productive member of society now.

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