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The Lesson Every Teacher Should Teach - Op-Ed Piece

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“You see, some things I can teach you. Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well, you have to see and feel.” - Khaled Hosseini



 

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The Lesson Every Teacher Should Teach - Op-Ed Piece


I have dealt with my fair share of SAT students over the last year of teaching them, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are smart and can hold a conversation that adults would have, displaying a maturity far beyond their years. Others are to be kind, not intelligent, and the best that any of us should ask of this kid is to be a good person since brains do not run in the family. Some weirdo kids make me wonder if I was that strange as a youth. Some kids have an attitude problem and feel like they are the best thing around. Kids should be understood as being younger, less experienced adults but also unique individuals all to themselves. They aren’t like me or the other tutors with their life experience. They can’t be. They also aren’t to be categorized into one big group but seen as a person with their own experiences and takes to bring to the table.

When I get to the end of the sessions where the kid says goodbye, I remember why I am a writer more than a teacher. I enjoy writing and creating these sentences in a way that is both educational and enjoyable to you more than I can ever like teaching it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind sharing advice on writing and English with high school students, but I much prefer writing a story. I guess I learned the art of writing couldn’t really beat other areas of the field, no matter how many times we talk about an Edgar Allan Poe piece.

I am not entirely certain how the kids view my own perspective of myself. What I mean by that is I don’t view myself as a teacher but as a writer who is capable of teaching. I don’t do it during the day, only at night. Some teachers seek to have more done in their educational path; I am thinking about my next short story. I present myself as I am, which is a professional writer. I am actually good at this whole writing thing. I am not some moron who can barely understand the classics. Personally, I think that gives me a different take on the kids since I don’t see them during the day. I can never say I am a teacher since I don’t really go through the “real” parts of being a teacher. Teachers out there know what I am talking about. There is a difference between seeing a kid once a week for a few hours after school and seeing that kid every day.

I tell the kids some nuggets of truth I hope they can bring with them long after they see me. If I am being honest, my impact on these kids’ lives is minimal at best and forgetful at worst. I don’t remember what the teacher taught me about the SAT when I was in school. I remember not going to an afterschool program to practice on the SAT. No one credits their SAT teacher for their great SAT scores.

Here are a few things I say to the kids:


You get out of the test what you put into it. – Some kids expect our tutoring sessions to be the reason they do great on the test. Don’t get me wrong, we make great progress because we focus on areas the kid needs work and then I try to put it into context the kid can comprehend, but I have seen kids who have gone home and worked on the SAT some more, and kids who never do the homework I assign, and the first kid (the one who studies more SAT afterward), always does better on the test. The kids need to know right away it is their education on the line, not mine. I joke with them and say that I already took the test. No one is questioning my intelligence, although, at that moment, the kid may be. Unfortunately, the kids feel the test is not practical, so therefore not worth trying hard. I can relate to such a sentiment, but I disagree. The impact of the usefulness you feel toward an event shouldn’t deter you from the amount of effort you put in. In other words, you should always give your best. There is a good reason for this also: you will fail, even if you do your best. How many of us have done 100 percent on something, and then what happens? Something gets in the way. Something happens that wasn’t supposed to happen. Yeah, that’s life. Now most of us view that as a sign to not try, but we should see it as a sign to continue to put our heart and mind into something. Now, imagine if you only put 50 percent into that same thing. You are not only getting not nearly as much, but that thing called life will also still knock you down.


I can teach you a lot of the test, but I can’t take it for you. – I tell them that they are like a boxer in a boxing match. No one can go into the ring with them. Only they can take the test. Their parents (who are the reason they are there, to begin with), their friends (who text them the entire time), and me, none of us are there filling out the answer sheet for them, and they have to realize that truth, so they know that the results are their responsibility and theirs alone.


It doesn’t matter, but it also does – I don’t lie to the kids when they ask me about my SAT scores. I honestly don’t remember. I tell them the truth. As a high school student, I was a great writer, so I was confident I could ace the college essay by writing something creative. I wasn’t that worried about my test score. (I am glad to say I was right to an extent, too, because this blog and my other writing experience helped me get the job in the first place) You’d be surprised how many kids have problems composing interesting sentences that can captivate a reader. Even the smart kids write so that the words are bland and uninteresting. That bluntness is not the type of advice that is helpful to the kids, so I then go on to say, “When you get a job, nobody cares what you got on the SAT. If you are a good worker and do your best, that is what matters, not how much you get on the SAT.” When I hired writers in the past, I didn’t ask them for their SAT scores. I didn’t care. Go to any job and see what they value. It is not your SAT score. It is your work ethic. I do acknowledge that the SAT does help colleges separate the students. There are some students who, let’s just say it for what it is, are not that smart. They struggle with independent clauses and pronoun clarity, and that kid shouldn’t be on the same level as those who get a perfect score. Is the SAT perfect? No. Because it does weed out all those kids who are never going anywhere.

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I can teach you everything for this test, but I can’t teach you how to change the world. That is up to you to decide. – This is the most recent advice I gave students. Although this quote may appear original and insightful, it is nothing more than my knowledge of a tale of an old general. It comes from an anecdote I know about the teachings of Alexander The Great. In the last year of his education, Philip the Second insisted that Alexander be done with being taught by Aristotle, who protested, citing there was more for the youth to learn. So Alexander skipped his last year of formal education to help with his father’s army and begin a life that would change the ancient world. A subtle lesson I always get from that story is that a teacher can only take a student so far. Aristotle could teach Alexander about every subject he knew, but he couldn’t teach him how to be the most influential person of his time. That is something only Alexander could learn.


You can give every student the proper materials and attention, but you can’t give the kids motivation, passion, and meaning. That is something they will have to learn for themselves. The best that we can hope for is they use their self-discovery to better help the world.


Also, there is a lesson for the student’s dedication to schooling that I deliberately leave out. If Alexander the Great left school, then I am fairly certain the random student I am teaching shouldn’t be that worried about leaving it since the absence from school didn’t stop Alexander’s rise. I leave out this take on the story since it is not necessarily helpful to the student who is literally going to school at the time and is probably not sure if they even want to. A kid can interpret that as me saying it is okay for them to quit school entirely, which is missing the point of that lesson. The wiseass remark about “Alexander leaving school is okay” is something I only say to other adults, not the kids. I am happy this kid still shows up; the last thing I need is for the kid to relay to their parents about the English teacher telling them it is okay to drop out since Alexander the Great did it. That is not a conversation I want to have with a parent.


I have found there is one obligation I have as a teacher, more than a few wise truisms, and that is to instill a lifelong pattern of reading into the kid. You would be surprised by how many kids don’t read. They read what the schools teach them to read, and think that is enough, and then go on their way. Now, I get that mentality. I had it when I was a kid. I enjoyed other things, like sports and video games, but I also loved going to the school library and grabbing a book about events that changed the world and sitting there and reading it. I was not graded on the contents of the book. I didn’t have to tell my parents or my friends about reading it. There was no reason to read other than to enjoy it. As a teacher, I try to encourage the kids that I get to become readers. Reading has helped millions of people worldwide for many years, and I want the kids I teach to see that they, too, can be one of those people.


“What do you like?” I ask the students I teach.


The kids always have an answer for this question since, despite their goofy appearance and unusual demeanor, kids have interests you wouldn’t expect. Some say they like music. Others say art, some politics. The topics are all over the place. Every kid certainly likes something enough to learn more about it, and that is where I lead them to reading.


I tell the kids a very simple thing about leisure reading and why I am still a passionate reader until this day. “Read what you like. Because I guarantee someone has written a few books about your interest. Start with that. And then go from there.”


I tell them about books I like to read and genres and authors I have come across, which you may know if you read this blog. I bring up poetry, short stories, history, and classic literature. I like books in those areas. I also have an interest in Shakespeare and a few other famous authors. I don’t sit there and pretend that I read every book or know more than them. I started out as a reader, just like they are now. I didn’t magically get drawn into a bunch of books. I started with one basic genre, on a basic level, and then I grew from there. When we review the works, I can tell the student a few facts about Maurice Sendak or F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t learn it overnight. The knowledge from learning helped me grow in my personal knowledge enabling me to know more.

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I even try to look up some of the books in the areas the kids like to show them they can buy the book on Amazon. Education in a world with access is a decision the individual must make themselves. Do I want to spend time learning something that I enjoy that I know can help me later on, or should I spend time enjoying myself on something that may or may not help me? Reading has never hurt someone in their progress to grow as a person. No one has ever said, “Oh man, that guy read too many books!”


It feels like the kids are not taught to love reading while in school. They view it as a chore, like putting their clothes away or making their bed. The kids that I teach don’t realize that the most successful people in the world read often. If you read often, you are already smarter than most people. They don’t t see the impact reading can have on them as people. Readers are the voters, the rule makers, the lawmakers, and the innovators. If you read, you can become one of those people or at least understand them. I guess this is where I agree with the old-timers who criticize some young celebrity whose name or movie, or song they don’t know since that young celebrity does not promote a love for literature to their audience. The kids follow this guy or gal, and what do they see? A person who got where they are in life without any mention of reading. I can’t remember the last time I saw a famous celebrity be proud to be a reader. The only time I see it is when football players read to young kids. I will give you a second to let that sink in. A football player, who is not known for their overall intelligence, but physical ability, is teaching a kid to read, which is a skill of the mind, not the body. It is almost comical that the most prominent figures talk of books or reading when people we consider inferior in thought (athletes) do it. I can almost guarantee the favorite celebrity of a kid is not their favorite because that celebrity promotes themselves as a reader.

There is a common excuse kids have to eliminate reading from their schedule. They are too damn busy. The kids who half-ass their school work, aren’t very good at sports, and barely pay attention when they are being taught by me, the SAT teacher, is too busy. What are they too busy with? Being a naïve stupid teenager? Not listening to their parents? Rolling their eyes at everyone? I tell them that is not a good excuse, and I cite a man for being as prolific as reader as I have ever heard of.

Here is what I tell the kids, “Yeah, I don’t want to hear that. Did you know that there was a president who, while being in office, still found time to read a half hour a day? That was the president of the United States of America. I know you are not as busy as him. I don’t want to hear you are too busy. Asking you to read a half hour every day is not asking that much.”


The man I am talking about is Theodore Roosevelt, whose life is seen as a great explorer and adventurer, and hunter, but those who learn more about him know that he is a reader. He read so much that many readers would ask him how he did it. This is the same guy who the teddy bear is named after, by the way. This man, in his time, had vetoed more bills than any president before him and is still seen by many as one of the most active presidents of all time. That guy had time to sit down with a good book and read a little. I don’t want to hear how the teenager on the volleyball team, swimming team, and the World Congress club is too busy. That is only an excuse to not read.


Another excuse I hear too often is about the kids and their exhaustion. They will say they are tired from school, which I get; school is long, but give me a break, kid. I tell the kids, “I don’t want to hear that. I am tired. That kid in the other room is tired. The other teachers are tired. We are all tired. Don’t use that as an excuse.” If a kid can’t even read an 800-word article and answer some questions while tired, then they need to reconsider if school is for them.

Also, I want to address another matter about kids today that is not about reading, and it is our constant blaming of the youth for their softness. We expect these kids to wake up early, go to school all day, attend a tutoring session, and then go to tennis practice (or whatever sport they play). Oh, and the kid still has homework to complete. Some days piano lessons replace the tennis practice because being busy is not enough; the kid needs to be busy and diversified too. We are pushing these kids too hard. Then when the kids go to an event they don’t run, and everyone receives a trophy, we mock the kids as if they are the ones who ran the trophy ceremony. What do we want from these kids? We seem to expect them to work 24/7 some days but then be pampered another. Let’s stop mocking these kids as if they are wrong for receiving a pointless trophy no one cares about. I am so tired of hearing older people insult the kids as if they were such kids then too. It is easy to mock the kids since they are not there to comment on it. Anyway, I just thought I had to share this rant about the constant barrage of hurtful statements about today’s kids. They will be fine; give them the benefit of the doubt and cut with the inappropriate remarks. Adults should empathize with kids since they were as stupid, naïve, and directionless as the kids once too, and somehow, against all odds, the adults turned out okay.

How many things do you do in your day-to-day life that is more important than what reading can give you? There is eating, to you know, stay alive. Then there is working at your job to get money to buy the food that keeps you alive. Then there is some sort of physical activity to keep yourself fit. Perhaps there is a social activity like a book club, where you obviously mention this great blog (Sorry, I had to). If you are spiritual, there is some act you perform for that aspect of your life. And then there is reading, which helps to grow your mind by exposing it to new thoughts and ideas. When I am talking about reading, I am talking about one of the best things a person can do daily, not just any other act.

I am not told of their results when the kids I teach take the SAT test. This is because I have already moved on to the next student that needs my individual tutoring. Most teachers would say they have done a good job teaching if that kid reaches their goal for the test, but I say I had done my job when in 10-15 years, the kid I taught is an adult, and they are proud to say they read every day.

“Oh hey. Remember me? You taught me on the SAT!”

“Oh, right. I remember. What are you doing?”

“Heading home.” I then saw them carrying a book about a topic they showed interest in.

“What’s that?” I ask.

” Oh. This is a book about (whatever the topic is). I have read a lot on it.”

All the kids think that I am teaching them to get better SAT scores by discussing verb agreement or sentence structure, but I am not. Instead, I am trying to help them appreciate something that is far more important than any test; a love for reading. If I can have the kid I teach become a lifelong reader after we are done, I have done my job, no matter what the SAT says.

 

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Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes the reader shares that passion.

 

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