There’s a rickety chair near my desk in my classroom. It doesn’t look like much now, but remnants of what once was can be read like an ancient treasure map. Nearly 20 years old, spray-painted silver, with decoupage of clever sayings cut from magazines, and more paint in primary colors—it matches the flexible seating, shabby chic, and chaos of my current classroom. I don’t sit on it much anymore because teaching has changed. Whereas I used to sit perched upon it daily like a wise owl imparting knowledge, nowadays in my project-based classroom, most often, I’m busy helping my students to create, collaborate and teach.
This chair was a Christmas gift from one of my classes at Portsmouth High School in my second year of teaching. They had schemed about it for quite some time, meeting at a student’s house to decorate it so that it would be perfect for me. As young teachers often are, I was more of a big sister to them than that wise owl I perceived myself to be back then. If you zoom in closely, you can see some of what remains of the quotes and words that were important: “This WILL work” and “advice,” as well as a Diet Coke logo. You’ll see “You don’t know a person until you’ve seen their movie collection” and “results” and “lighten up.” What strikes me decades later is that even back then when I was trying to establish myself as the authority in a room of students only a few years younger than me, relationships were still at the center of everything.
They knew me, and they appreciated me as a person, not as an authority or an English language arts expert, though I served in both of those roles, too. One of the things we’ve seemed to lose in the last 20 years is that authority, and I constantly fight to remind the public (and fellow teachers) that teaching is a profession and an art, not something that can be replicated or replaced, not interchangeable, and the importance of our influence cannot be reduced to a test score. I’ve learned that acting as a tour guide on students’ journeys—a “guide on the ride”—is far more important than any other role we can play, and when students let us go with them through their days as they “do life,” that demonstrates authority in ways compliance can’t.
Through the years, I’ve come to understand students’ appreciation differently. Sure, I love my coffee mugs, hand-knit scarves, homemade goodies, and gift cards to feed my coffee addiction, but that’s not the kind of appreciation I mean. What has been the most fulfilling part of teaching is finding out that I’m a part of a student’s story, being appreciated for what I’ve shared with them or helped them learn, but most simply, being appreciated for who I am. This rickety old chair tells a story about us—me and that class decades ago, and the story still rings true today. Walk into my classroom around 2 p.m., and you’ll still find me with a Diet Coke. I’m wildly optimistic, and most students have willed their way through a situation with me, as I incant: “This WILL work.” I still like to give advice. Results still matter, and I frequently implore my students to “lighten up,” telling them that “life happens,” and we are all doing our best. I’m proud to say that the No. 2 blog on Share My Lesson last year was “Teaching Social Justice Through Film,” and the No.1 lesson is on “Zootopia,” the topic of that blog, and yes, I clearly believe that my movie collection speaks volumes about who I am.
As we think about Teacher Appreciation Week this year (May 7-11), the narrative can get negative, and the job can seem thankless at times, downright denigrated by policies that strip teachers of their authority as professionals. Though we must continue to fight for our profession, I’d like to suggest that the greatest appreciation we can receive is not the ringing endorsement of the public (though that would be nice), or being showered with gifts (though that would be nice, too). Instead, the greatest form of appreciation is the honor of participating in the journey our students take. When they let us join their journey, acting as a “guide on the ride,” and they get to know us as people, and we learn who they truly are, the road trip that ensues is spectacular.
Want to see this wonderful, shabby chic chair in Amber Chandler’s classroom? Watch this video showcasing Amber & Ira, two English language arts teachers who share their lessons on Share My Lesson.