The Things They Remember

“Students will remember how we treated them long after they forget what we taught them.”

This January I spent most of the month on St. Simons Island, Georgia, partly to get away from the Chicago cold for a bit, and partly to begin work on a new book. I lived on St. Simons from 1995 - 2002 and it remains one of my favorite places on earth. When living there, I taught middle school language arts, high school English, and coached a number of sports. I have many fond memories of many awesome students I taught and coached during those years.


One weekend while on St. Simons during my visit, my entire family also joined me there to celebrate my mother's 85th birthday (she had me when she was 50 or so). When my sister and I got off an elevator to enter a rooftop restaurant where we would be celebrating, a young man waiting to take the elevator down exclaimed, “Coach Zoul!” Although I vaguely recognized the face, I had to ask his name. When he told me, I immediately remembered him from my English class and high school baseball team. I asked him how old he was now and he let me know he was 34 (Yes, it made me feel quite ancient). We hugged and he told me a rather interesting story. It went something like this: “Coach, you were the best! My cousin and I still talk about you all the time. Just the other day, we were talking about the time you slid down a pole into the classroom from the ceiling when we did not even know you were up there.” This former student-athlete and I reminisced a bit more, hugged again, and I went about my my business with my sister, who asked somewhat incredulously, “You slid down a pole into your classroom from the ceiling??!” Well, I suppose I did since this young man seemed to have it etched into his memory, but here’s the kicker: I have no recollection of this event whatsoever.

Now, it certainly sounds like something I would do. And, I taught in an ancient Works Project Administration building classroom that had several supporting poles throughout and ceiling tiles I 
via: goo.gl/B8oRQR
suppose could have easily been removed. As a teacher, I always loved teaching my content, but I loved playing practical jokes and having fun with my students even more, so his anecdote certainly rings true, but I just don’t remember it. Yet, this now 34-year-old former student did and was still talking about it with his cousin 17 years after the fact. 

To be honest, I have had similar encounters with a number of former students over the years. They always seem to remember something crazy we did during class that had nothing to do with the curriculum. A former first grade student reminded me once of the time that we squeezed my entire class of 24 first graders into my 1975 Ford Thunderbird as a reward for perfect behavior. I have mixed feelings about the things my former students remember actually. On the one hand, I sincerely believe that learning is the ultimate purpose--or “Why?”--of any school and I expect all teachers (including myself during my 18-year teaching career) to actually be teaching a guaranteed and viable curriculum each day. At the same time, I also realize that kids need to know we care about them as people first and students second and they need to not only work hard but also have fun in our classrooms. Dylan William suggests that pedagogy trumps curriculum--or rather is curriculum--because what matters is how things are taught, not what is taught. And I would suggest that sometimes pedagogy includes the zany things we do as teachers that have nothing to do with learning standards.
via: @RossCoops31 on Facebook

Although I am a firm believer that we must ensure what we are teaching includes actual grade level (or above) learning standards, the “how” is even more important and this "how" can include all the non-academic things we do just for fun. I suspect that sliding from the ceiling down into the classroom took no more than three minutes away from my instructional time on this particular day and I suspect it was three minutes well spent. Even though my former student did not mention any of the works of literature we were reading that year or papers that we wrote, maybe on that particular day he was just a little more engaged in reading Julius Caesar after starting class with the teacher making a surprising entrance from the ceiling.

One never knows what the students sitting in front of us today will remember many years hence; my hunch, though, is that it will more often than not be something completely unrelated to the curriculum. Take time to ensure that the non-academic memories our children retain many years down the road are memories of fun, laughter, caring, and even silliness. I believe our very best teachers--even those focused like a laser beam on standards--make time for pure fun each and every day in their classrooms. Indeed, it is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!




2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this story Jeff. It is true that students remember the most unusual things!
    We can have such a positive impact when we know our students well and treat them with respect and instil creativity in them. Your story clearly shows you've had this positive impact!

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    Replies
    1. Chris, Thank you so much for taking the time to read and share your comments! Best, Jeff

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