Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? It was my favorite part of graduation. While most of the audience focused on the graduates and their ‘fascinating’ speeches, I waited for the traditional salute to our teachers.
One by one our teachers were called by name and asked to rise to be recognized. For me it was an important moment. Of course, I was thrilled that my teachers should receive the attention they richly deserved but rarely received. After all, how often do students stand at the end of class and show appreciation for teachers?
Excuse me for digressing, but I must relate the following incident. I was recently visiting a school in Toronto where I serve as an educational consultant. One of my roles is to observe classroom teachers and provide feedback and guidance. I walked into a sixth grade class and experienced one of most amazing classes I had ever witnessed. As I began to leave the classroom, I felt that I simply had to say something. I stopped and asked the students if they appreciated what they had just experienced. Without waiting for their answer, I asked them all to stand and clap for their teacher and for the opportunity to have encountered true excellence. The teacher’s red face told me that they did not clap very often.
Back to graduation: While I do not possess a clap-o-meter, it did interest me to know who would get the loudest applause. While not the most scientific of ways to gauge teacher success – and possibly the very worst determinant of such – the meter was running. For the nine years I had served as principal of the school, the salute played out in pretty much the same way. Each teacher rose, received a hearty round of applause, and sat down. But one teacher was different. When her name was called, the needle went off the charts. At first I was shocked, but by the second or third repetition of the same phenomenon, I learned an extremely valuable lesson.
If you had asked me to predict which teacher would bring down the house and be voted ‘best teacher,’ she would not have topped my list. After all, there was the very popular seventh grade social studies instructor, whose spirited discussions about current events and the world around us always led to an extremely interesting class. Or, I would have nominated the guitar-playing fourth grade teacher, whom students loved for his creativity and for making learning so much fun. And indeed, the teacher recognition needle did move further north for these two teachers compared to the rest. But who would have guessed that it was our middle school math teacher who would bring down the house?
To fully appreciate my surprise, one must understand who this teacher was. She spoke with a heavy Russian accent so that students only first began to understand her around November time. One to two hours of nightly homework were the norm, not the exception, and nothing but a death in the family – and only for very close relatives – could serve as an excuse. She was tough as nails, unforgiving, expected each student to perform at the top of his or her capabilities, and she let them know very clearly when they did not. Let me put it this way: If she was governing the USSR it never would have collapsed. And yet, it was in her honor that the entire auditorium gave a standing ovation, every year.
So what did I learn? I learned that students love to have fun, but more importantly that they love to learn. At the end of the day, students realize which teacher will impact their future the most. They will not care how hard you make them work or how incredibly demanding you are. If you give them something valuable that will make them significantly better in the future, they will forever cherish that gift. They may even come to realize that the insistence on hard work, the long hours, the refusal to accept excuses and the complete disdain for whining somehow contributed to their success. They know that they have been given the tools to achieve great things in life, and their teacher appreciation applause speaks volumes.