For a long time, my goal was to be the best language teacher ever. I watched master teachers at work (John Rassias at Dartmouth, Tom Kardel at KUA, to name a few), I went to conferences, and I read everything I could get my hands on. That goal served me well, but lately I’ve found myself drifting in a different direction; sometimes you need to think beyond your goal to see where you’re really headed. Being the best is not the point. The point is to keep learning. Actually, the point is that our students fall so in love with learning that they won’t ever stop. I want to model that.
I love teaching because there’s always more to learn and I get to help others. Job one is to create a safe, supportive learning environment. Job two is to balance rigor with creativity and boisterous fun. Every summer, I look back at the school year to see what sparked students’ joy and what drew blank stares, and I try to eliminate the latter for the coming year. I don’t use textbooks because you can’t prune a textbook. I also choose which of my colleagues’ best ideas I plan on stealing. In September, I dust myself off and try again: new year, new tree ring.
In the fall, I always invite my advisees to share their academic goals. Without fail, they say, “Get straight A’s.” This makes sense. We’re a college preparatory school, after all, and good grades are the keys to the kingdom. Striving to get top grades is a sound strategy if your goal is to get into a top college. Let’s pause that thought. Is it possible that the “good grades/best college” goal might be limiting? I think so, although it’s hard to see it from high school. If you matriculate at the college of your dreams, are you done? Say you graduate from college summa cum laude. Mission accomplished? Of course not. You’re just getting started.
I speak from experience. Like my advisees, my goal in high school was to get the best grades and attend the best college. From that perspective, I succeeded: I attended an Ivy League college, spent two years teaching at an independent high school, went to law school, and took a job at one of the top law firms in Boston. There I was, on top of the mountain—or so I thought. If I’m being honest, I think my goal was more about getting up there than anything else.
Then a funny thing happened: That old teaching voice started whispering in my ear. I volunteered to help with a high school trial advocacy program in Boston public schools. I coached a youth soccer team in my town. My mountaintop had a great view, but the whispers persisted: There had to be more. It turns out there was. I was one of the lucky ones; I found a way to look past my goal of being the best to see what my real purpose was—helping students fall so in love with learning that it informs the rest of their lives. To be sure, I want my students to love French, but I want them to love learning even more.
Since I’m writing this in late May, I can imagine the eye rolls from my current students. With the weather warming and the trees blossoming, I think their love of summer might outweigh their love of learning right now. But it’s my goal and I stand by it. A wise colleague, English teacher and Coach Matt Underhill, told me the other day, “As coaches, it’s more important to instill a love of the game in our athletes than to teach them specific skills.” Amen. By the way, Matt led his game-loving softball team to a Lakes Region League Championship this year.
At KUA, our mission is to “create a deep sense of belonging for every member of our community. Through intentionally designed experiences and challenges, our students develop the knowledge, voice, and character to live with purpose and integrity.”
Finding your purpose is a deeply personal endeavor. No one can find it for you. It may land in your lap; it may require years of searching; it may become your avocation or your vocation. But if you can find your way back to yourself, your true self, it will allow you to live with passion, gusto, and wonder.
And that, my friends, is the whole point.