" . . what I also saw, however, were the names of people
who had no
substantial reputation as great teachers
but whom students had
described as mentors, guides, mothers, fathers,
in the same spirit that
Dante would have claimed Virgil
and thanked him for guiding him through
the Hell of his life at that time. . ."
- Jim Burke
By Jim Burke
A colleague of mine often says, when someone wants to claim responsibility for changing the life of a given student, that "we are all part of the puzzle." At first, I admit, I wanted to resist this. After all, isn't it a more rewarding story to place ourselves at the center of the narrative of that student's life? Hold ourselves up, even if only in our imagination, as heroic? Be Jaime Escalente? Erin Gruwell?
The truth of her comment about being "a piece of the puzzle" becomes more evident to me as time passes. You realize that each kid needs different things at different times from different people for different reasons. You were there to give those nudges that were yours to offer, to fill in the cracks in a student's crumbling psyche with words of wisdom or healing. And you sent them on their way--to the next class, the next teacher, the next year, or the next school where your words, small, hard truths stored up like nuts for the winters ahead, waited till those students needed what you had to offer.
I once asked a senior class some years ago to jot notes down to a teacher or two who had made the real difference in their lives. Flipping through them, I assumed I would see some of the great talents at my school, which I did; what I also saw, however, were the names of people who had no substantial reputation as great teachers but whom students had described as mentors, guides, mothers, fathers, in the same spirit that Dante would have claimed Virgil and thanked him for guiding him through the Hell of his life at that time.
The teacher I would claim led me to teaching? My English teacher in high school, a man whose class I only passed because we were friends enough (we played racketball regularly) that he could not give me the F I earned. But I took it all in, as I did so much from others I had, each of them contributing their voice to what would become my own, which I now spend my days using to help my students in some effort to help them discover and develop theirs.
Check out Jim's newest book: What's The Big Idea? Question Driven Units To Motivate Reading, Writing & Thinking. Why a book about questions? "Because when students' instruction is organized around meaningful, clear questions," writes Jim Burke, "they understand better, remember longer, and engage much more deeply and for greater periods of time."
"Jim shows how making essential questions the center of your teaching can ease the tension between good teaching and teaching to the test while giving students dependable, transferable tools for reading, writing, thinking, and participating in the real world."
Bio: Jim Burke is the author of the Heinemann title What's the Big Idea? The question he's always tried to answer is "How can we teach our students better?"
He began this search in his own classroom at Burlingame High School in California, where he still teaches. Looking to his peers for still more answers, he founded the English Companion Ning, described by Education Week as "the world's largest English department."
In 2007, he participated in the national Adolescent Literacy Coalition roundtable and worked with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Visit his website English Companion for a resource-filled experience.
Previously Published by The Daily Riff May/2010