What Exactly is a Teacher?

I’m a teacher. Except I’m not.  My teen-aged daughter tells me I’m not. For some reason she doesn’t like to allow me the privilege of saying I’m a teacher. It’s not that she has anything against teaching, at least I don’t think she does (I need to run a focus group on that), she’s just an analytical kid, so for her it’s pretty black and white.

An aside for emphasis, she’s the kid who over a decade ago at five years old sat in her booster chair in the back seat of my car, her face deadpan (a bad pun for what was going on at the time). I held the Jack Russell I’d just run over in the driveway after or during the mad dash to do the seventeen things I needed to do in the one hour I had left before nap time (her two-year-old brother was back there with her). I was crying; in fact, I was pretty close to a full-on panic attack when Eliza, in her flat little voice said, “Mom, why are you crying?” It was more of a statement than a question. I replied, “BECAUSE…I just ran over Scout, and I’m really sad about it, Eliza!” I sniffled away during what was a moment of quiet, thoughtful, pause, and she said, “Well, she’s not DEAD, so I don’t know why you are crying.” In Eliza’s mind, at five and now still at 18, if you aren’t dead you are alive, so what’s with the tears.  Perhaps Eliza is the teacher after all–a teacher of philosophy.  

What is a teacher if I’m not one? For seven years I taught high school British and American Lit, Creative Writing, and soccer. After a brief stint as a stay-at-home mom (SAHM–love that acronym, get it on admission applications all the time), domestic engineer, Boss (yes, I’ve seen that one too), I’ve been the Admission, Marketing, and Financial Aid Director for 13 years in an independent (private) school. I’m not in a classroom anymore. I’m either in my office getting the low down on another gifted three year old or I’m walking the hallways pointing out “project work” or the 100 other points of differentiating light for my prospective parent, my customer. I’m not a teacher. Except that I am.

In grade school I wrote plays and gave all my friends parts, taught them what to say and how I wanted them to say it. “No Mom, that’s micromanagement,” Eliza says. In 4th grade, I took it upon myself to teach Tom Helbing the answers to my social studies test (and few other things at recess). Unfortunately, my teacher said that was not teaching; instead she said, “Beth, that is cheating,” and I got detention and an F. In 6th grade, I stood in front of my entire class at St. Mary’s Catholic School and explained the brain science of alcoholism as I’d remembered it from a seminar my mom let me attend with her. I drew a circle for a brain on the chalk board and even used a pointer.  During my own little seminar, I managed to “out” every alcoholic in my extended Irish Catholic family.  Unfortunately my cousin Steve was in my class and ran home to tell my aunt, who immediately picked up the phone, and once again, I found myself in trouble. “That’s not teaching,” Mom said, “that’s telling secrets, Beth.”

I’ll admit I can be a bit didactic, “euphemism for know-it all, Mom,” but it’s not completely my fault. I’ve had positive reinforcement. I was an only child to really young parents for 8 glorious years. I was the only act in town. All their friends, all my aunts, grandparents, everyone I knew, thought I was pretty special. And then years later, my brother and sister showed up on the scene, so I got to boss them around, give them LOTS of unsolicited advice. Everybody always seemed like they were listening, but  sometimes I realize I was just wasting good air. It was during those finger wagging moments like teaching my brother and sister on how to avoid the perils of young adulthood, “don’t drink jug wine as it is a gateway to Boone’s Farm, which ultimately will lead you to White Zinfindel.” I had great hope that I would make a difference in their lives until I watched them make every single mistake I’d so generously outlined for them. Sometimes even the best teachers can’t break through. 

As I reflect further, there have been very few didactic moments I would call successful. I’ve encountered a good number of rednecks throughout my life growing up in Georgia and living in the great southern states of Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky. I’ve attempted to teach said rednecks  on how to not seem like such rednecks. Those teachable moments have not gone so well if I’m honest with myself. One lesson plan led to my running as fast as I could down a grassy knoll, jumping into the front seat of my car, locking my doors and hiding. My 8-year-old son hid better than I did. Maybe more on that story later, but a quick summary would say that cramming one’s own values down someone else’s throat is not teaching. It’s being judgmental. 

I’ve taught myself to sew and then taught my daughter, and together we made some awesome costumes like bumblebees, Midas, and Recycle Woman. “That’s crafts, Mom.” I’ve taught women about designer clothing, “romancing” the collection so they could see how the colors and textures integrate, how each piece can layer and interact, how sized and accessorized appropriately made them look fabulous. “That’s sales, Mom.” I’ve taught my son how to shoot and clean a twenty gauge, how to properly make a bed, and how to find the tiniest of lego pieces. “That’s being a mom, Mom.” I’ve taught my husband of almost 25 years how to stay married to a bossy “Betty” Pride. “That’s self-preservation, Mom.”

Most recently, over the past 13 years, I’ve taught thousands of people about The Lexington School. It is where I work, where my children went to school, where I have made some of the best friends I’ll ever have, and it is where I have enjoyed objectively the most successful part of my career as a teacher. Research shows…our enrollment has increased over 100 students,  our attrition has decreased around 80%, yada yada. I teach prospective parents about our educational product. I show them what a $20,000 per year 1st grade looks like, what makes it worth it, why they must join our community of learners. I teach faculty and staff on how essential their role is in cultivating learners as well as “Raving Fans,” and I teach students how to tell their story, all at once making them understand how fortunate they are and what a responsibility they have as future leaders in our world. I am a teacher, Eliza, not a salesperson, not a marketer, not an advertiser. “Mom. I hate to break it to you, but if you don’t have a classroom with kids in it, then you aren’t a teacher. It is just the way it is.” 

I learned a long time ago that to bend a teenager’s brain, one must have either serious leverage or divine intervention. Decidedly not splitting hairs, I will stick to my own gumption and say this: to be a teacher is to have an inner nature that wants to help people. To teach is to build relationships. To be a teacher is to live for that moment of understanding and trust. If I’m not a teacher, I want to be. 

Shall we make a list?

Research shows…The Top Five Things That Make You  a Teacher:

  1. You are compelled to help people.
  2. You are willing to take the time to learn with an eagerness or even a passion to share.
  3. You enjoy building relationships based on compassion and empathy.
  4. You are able to see many colors, both sides, lots of problems, several solutions.
  5. You are an engaged facilitator of new understanding.

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