What Elements Shape a Teacher’s Legacy?

A MiddleWeb Blog

not easy tween logo 210 300I am currently taking a couple of graduate classes in order to renew my certification. One of the classes requires writing an essay to clarify essential beliefs by writing about what we believe to be our personal teacher legacy. I am surprised by how difficult I am finding this assignment.

When I have taught at the university level or mentored new teachers, I seem to be able to rattle off what I believe and my philosophy of teaching quite easily. What throws me is that I haven’t thought about it in terms of a legacy.

In other words, I have to think about my teaching from my students’ perspective and not through what I want to accomplish. Are my beliefs being translated into actions, and can the children recognize my core teaching values?

laptop timeI have procrastinated in writing the essay because I am feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the question. As Todd Whittaker says in What Great Teachers Do Differently, “Every teacher has an impact. Great teachers make a difference.” I take these words to heart. I don’t want to just be one more adult in my students’ lives.

Like all good teachers I know, I truly want to make a difference. I hope that every decision I make in the classroom is leading to this end, but I still haven’t finished the paper.

The dawning of inspiration

Some inspiration to begin the paper came earlier this month in the form of a presentation by Dave Burgess at the AMLE annual conference. He told us of a teacher he knew, Michael Matera, who gives his students an end-of-the-year reflective assignment to describe how they feel about having been in his class. Dave then challenged us, as teachers, to think about this in terms of what we want our students to say about our class when the school year is over.

Dave used the analogy of setting a GPS device. A GPS points you in the direction of your destination and is capable of being reset at any time if a course correction is necessary. For some reason, this seemed much easier than writing about a legacy I wished to leave. The light bulb clicked, and I was easily able to frame my legacy in terms of the following five words I hope students would use to describe my class.

5 words I hope will resonate with my students

1) Joyful: I have written before about how I enjoy being known as a “fun” teacher, but I hope students appreciate more than my sense of humor. I hope they see me as someone passionate about my job. I want them to respond to my enthusiasm for reading and writing in kind. Do they notice how I accentuate the positive and don’t get mired down in negativity? When they mention my class or think about me, I want them to smile.

jump 2702) Challenging: While it is true that I want my class to be fun, I also want my students to learn something. I want them to push the limits of their potential to achieve beyond their wildest dreams. I try to do this by very deliberate, innovative lesson planning. I want the material they learn to be purposeful, relevant, and engaging. It’s my job to make the information and skills they must learn as interesting as possible.

I am intentionally provocative in my questioning to force them to think deeply and critically about an issue. I have high expectations and won’t let them get away with doing the bare minimum. I push them to produce their best work so that they will be proud of what they have accomplished and achieved.

It may be my 23rd year of teaching, but it is their first and only year in my class. They deserve a teacher who wants to be there to teach them something and isn’t phoning it in.

3) Caring: One of my favorite quotes is Maya Angelou’s “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Every day, I give my students everything I have. I teach with all my heart. I am responsive to their needs and compassionate when they need me to be. I protect their hearts and their dignity.

I show them my authentic self as well. We become a community of learners where everyone has an important role. I believe caring is the hallmark of a great teacher and the characteristic students mention most about favorite teachers. Every student in my class must feel included, respected, and, above all, valued for exactly who they are.

handoff 2754) Empowering: Part of what makes middle school so unique is that teachers are not just helping students learn content, they are helping them determine who they are as young adults and will become. For this reason, it is imperative that they are given the tools and opportunities to explore their interests and determine their talents and what really makes them happy.

I believe in a student-centered classroom. To that end, I provide as much autonomy as possible, but with support at the ready. They feel free to take risks and share their opinions because I appreciate and encourage these behaviors. This all helps them develop a growth mindset and continue to push themselves to reach greater heights.

5) Inspiring: I recently received a lengthy thank-you email from a long-ago former student. I am grateful for these acts of gratitude, because we have all received this kind of appreciation and it is what keeps us going on our toughest days. She said one thing that really struck me: “I remember you as the teacher who inspired me to become passionate about expression and broadening myself, which to me is the essence of education.”

Teachers are challenged with helping students reach their potential, pursue their passions, and become life-long learners. I want every student to feel as Alex did and believe something I did moved them and was memorable, and maybe even set them on a new path.

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We can’t avoid our teaching legacy

All of our students will move up and grow up and soon become adults. The reality is that leaving a teaching legacy is inevitable, so I should do everything I can to make it count. I need to be mindful of what I am doing and saying on a daily basis that will make a lasting difference. I feel so much more relieved now that I have set my course for a great school year and a lasting legacy. I am ready to finish my essay.

How do you hope your teaching will be remembered? What are some words that you might choose to help frame your hoped-for legacy?

Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 20+ years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.

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