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2012 Winter Essay Contest Winner - Teacher

1st Place Winner
Mark Cayou,
Kiowa High School
Kiowa, CO



I did not care. Why should I have? Nobody else did, or at least that was how it felt. Doing just enough to get by, choosing the path of least resistance, biding my time until graduation; this was the climate, the culture. Their arrogance and superiority was intimidating. Their detachment was the norm. They seemed unapproachable, unavailable, and uninspiring. They were my teachers. But I wasn't disappointed; I didn't know any different. They were just doing their jobs. Tossing information in our general direction, and the rest was up to us. Like so many others, I survived; most of us did. Now, in all fairness, I would like to think that this perspective is merely the murky recollection of another apathetic youth, which just brings us back to - I did not care. The classroom had become a holding room filled with boredom and irrelevance, and I vowed that as soon as I was no longer required to enter one, I would never willingly return to one.

Never say never. I will spare the gory details, but as a second career - maybe it's the fourth or fifth - became necessary, I found myself in a high school English classroom. "Those who cannot remember the past...," according to writer and philosopher George Santayana, "...are condemned to repeat it." I was determined to vanquish those sullen memories of high school by offering something that these kids would never forget. I had no idea what that was, but I was going to find it.


I now have the greatest respect and appreciation for those teachers whom I have summarily indicted, but if I was to attempt to establish anything different from what I had experienced, I needed to redefine the role of a teacher - for myself. Those first few days, weeks, months, were torturous. I saw the vapid reflection of myself from so long ago staring blankly back at me. I saw the eyes watching the clock and heard the voices discussing everything but the task at hand. No interest, little motivation; they did not care. In spite of my best intentions, I had unwittingly replicated the methods, the culture, and the climate in which I had been taught. Twelve, nay, sixteen years of an obsolete educational approach had taken root. I felt authoritative and stolid. I was prepared with an arsenal of information. I hit ‘em with both barrels day in and day out, but regardless of the weapons - for it had begun to feel like a daily battle - I made no advancement. Nobody was winning. I was ineffective. Frustration and disillusionment won out. Everything felt forced, contrived, artificial, and stagnant; this was not me.


Wait. What was that?


This was not me. Insert floating light bulb above head. What if I dropped the facade of my emulated amalgamation of erstwhile instructors? What if I was to allow more of myself into the classroom? What if I became a real person in their eyes? Could it be that simple? Make no mistake, nothing about this profession is simple, but since I would not be condemned to repeating the past, I had to change something. I hoped that if I was more giving of myself, in terms of personality and interests, maybe the kids would be willing to try the same. Once I dropped the trite image of what I had unintentionally and disappointingly become, and embarked upon creating a new climate of mutual respect and trust, things began to change.


I soon saw that the role of an effective educator was so multi-faceted that countless volumes could, and undoubtedly have been written on this issue alone. But until I personally engaged the individual passions, concerns, and fears of my students, it was just another admirable option. This role of provider and giver has now become my only option. As I have become willing to honestly share my perspectives and opinions, certainly not as the sole or right ones, but just as examples of an individual's, the kids have witnessed and responded to our commonalities, even vulnerabilities, as humans. Sharply contrast this to students defensively reacting to our differences in the inherent authoritative hierarchy of the educational structure. Instead of, "This is what I expect you to learn today," objectives have evolved toward "This is what we are going to explore today, together." That exploration includes relevant, real world application, placing value and meaning on the individual's insight. Upon fostering my role as facilitator and guide, the creativity and personal buy-in was encouraging. Instead of, "This is the assignment," I have created "...a few options for further consideration." Semantics? Not at all. When given a choice, a student will gravitate toward an angle of more personal relevance and through the revelation of caring, even just a little bit, will produce more meaningful work. By respecting my students' individuality, they have in turn respected mine.


When a student is aware that his teacher respects his individuality, his own perspectives and insights begin to carry more validity. When that student is encouraged to express an opinion or belief, without the risk of judgment, he feels his voice has value. Personal worth, therefore, ignites ownership and responsibility, through which we realize success. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone craves acceptance. Everyone carries a unique perspective that deserves to be shared. This intrinsic need to be understood provides the motivation that drives and challenges students to craft and hone communication skills and styles that result in academic success. I owe this insight in part to Stephen Covey, who suggests that we must first seek to understand, then to be understood. My students understand the value and importance of effective communication and collaboration, and have become personally invested in becoming understood.

I consider myself fortunate to teach English. This is a perfectly natural avenue in which I can encourage bold and honest expression, through both the spoken and written word. The realm of literature also allows for personal inventory and a comparison of responses to our human condition. My students expect, regardless of the specific reading, that they will be asked to consider, "So what? What does this mean to me? How can I apply these issues to my life? Given the same circumstances, would I behave or react differently than George, Atticus, Holden, Hamlet, or Heathcliff?" I am saddened at times when a student arrives in our room with little or no insight as to acceptable societal interaction. Times were when parents claimed ownership of the character and citizenship of their children, but times change. I am honored to be entrusted, too often by default, with the added facet of molding character. When Spiderman's uncle said, "With great power comes great responsibility," he nailed it. Maybe the realization of just how much influence a teacher can wield is too much responsibility for some, so they are comfortable going only so far and caring only so much. Through exposure to common themes in literature, along with a safe environment, my students can evaluate consequences and alternatives that will expose the prerequisites for positive and productive participation in today's society. Hand in hand with this walks a heavy dose of leading by example. As my students grow to accept and respect me, they embrace the notion of doing the right thing; the power of The Golden Rule cannot be overemphasized. Equal to my challenge of providing insight into the language arts is what I believe to be my responsibility of providing insight into life.


Last spring, an eighth grader informed me that he was excited to be in my English class (some students tend to enjoy my class). He apologized in advance, however, for not being a very good writer. Naturally, I was anxious to read that first written assignment; it was strong. Upon returning the graded work and expanding on my comments, the young man was reserved and leery, fairly convinced that I was playing a cruel joke or outright mocking him. Over his eight years of education, no one had ever told him that his writing efforts were good. It took several assignments to convince him, through specific analysis and explanations of his strengths, that I was sincere. For the duration of the semester, this student, along with many others, expended tremendous effort and thought while willingly attacking writing challenges. The pride of self improvement and the fulfillment of the inherent desire to be appreciated and respected is a powerful reward, much more so than bribes of treats or trinkets. I see my students' motivation directly tied to the personal and individual discovery and growth associated with the knowledge that someone cares.

Admittedly, this all may sound idealistic, cliché, even naïve. But do not be too quick to dismiss the possibilities that these perspectives may provide. Do not discount the power of allowing students to see a real person direct their class. Above all, do not be afraid to ask, and then proudly answer the question, "Who cares?"