With the start of school now just a few days away for most teachers in Oklahoma, school parking lots are filling up and teachers are excitedly setting up their classrooms in anticipation for the arrival of a new group of students.

Great teachers understand the importance of starting the year on a good footing. They spend untold hours setting up their classrooms, updating bulletin boards, organizing desks and learning stations, developing seating charts, refining classroom rules and procedures, copying classroom materials, and creating “first day of school” ice-breakers and  activities which will help them get to know their students … and help their students get to know them.

Most educators also recognize the critical role they play in student success. Not only do teachers help students learn content and skills associated with certain subjects, they also guide students to become self-directed learners, problem solvers, thinkers, good citizens and human beings.

They teach and model character traits such as responsibility, persistence, compassion, empathy, integrity, resilience, and work ethic—just to name just a few.

In short, through a teacher’s daily interactions with the children in his or her classes, the teacher helps their students become a better version of themselves.

And, hopefully, through this process, the teacher also becomes better.

Most of you are familiar with this profound and insightful quote from Dr. Haim Ginott. It is something we should all probably read to ourselves before each school day.

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or deescalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

Dr. Ginott (1922-1973) was a school teacher, child psychologist, and parent educator. He pioneered techniques for conversing with children that are still taught today.

His book, Between Parent and Child, is still popular today. According to the publisher, this book gives “specific advice derived from basic communication principles that will guide parents in living with children in mutual respect and dignity.”

The following points highlight Dr. Ginott’s communications approach:

  • Never deny or ignore a child’s feelings.
  • Only behavior is treated as unacceptable, not the child.
  • Depersonalize negative interactions by mentioning only the problem. “I see a messy room.”Attach rules to things, e.g., “Little sisters are not for hitting.”
  • Dependence breeds hostility. Let children do for themselves what they can.
  • Children need to learn to choose, but within the safety of limits. “Would you like to wear this blue shirt or this red one?”
  • Limit criticism to a specific event—don’t say “never”, “always”, as in: “You never listen,” “You always manage to spill things”, etc.
  • Refrain from using words that you would not want the child to repeat.

These simple yet sometimes violated “truths” would serve as strong tenets for any classroom management plan. Building a climate of mutual trust and respect is predicated on a teacher’s capacity for developing authentic and caring relationships with his or her students.

As the saying goes, “Students won’t always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you treated them.”

This is why my former high school chemistry and physics teacher, Alan Moguin, still maintains an invisible yet tangible influence on who I am and how I relate with children–35 years after I have forgotten most of the subject matter I learned in his classes.

As my teacher, Alan demonstrated the absolute power of caring and believing in another human being.  As a result, he changed my life.

The next few days and weeks will be busy and chaotic for many teachers. They always are, particularly for new teachers or teachers changing schools. There is simply too much to do and not enough time to get it done. Too many meetings and professional development sessions and not enough time to work in classrooms.

With this as a backdrop, here is what I would share with those teachers who are overly stressed about getting it all done.

At the end of the day, it’s NOT about having the perfect classroom management plan or set of lesson plans. It’s NOT about having all your desks and classroom materials organized, fancy bulletin boards on the wall, or having all of your copy orders ready to go. No, that’s NOT really it.

That’s not what matters most. You are. YOU, being there for your kids, on day 1 and on day 180.

When students go home after the first day of school, they likely won’t tell their parents how organized your room was, how straight and neat your desk rows were, or how attractive your bulletin boards were. Many will not remember the amazing decor you spent hours creating and putting up on the walls.

But they will remember YOU. And that is what they will talk about with their parents everyday of the year and hopefully for years to come.

Students will remember your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU.

You are that difference in their lives.

You do it to yourself. Good teachers are always trying hard to be their best. Much of a teacher’s stress comes from their expectations they set for themselves.

You can sometimes be your harshest critic. You mentally beat yourself up for trivial failures. You tell yourself you’re not good enough. You compare yourself to others. You work yourself to exhaustion in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic and engaging lecture. The most innovative use of technology. The most efficient and attractive classroom.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do. We measure excellence by what we are doing rather than attaining excellence by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

When I speak with students about their teachers, the ones they respect and admire the most are described as being real and who genuinely care about them.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. They know what is most important.

And while the detailed lesson plans and well-structured classrooms will engage them for a while, it’s the constancy of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest.

It’s going to the football game or band concert we don’t have to attend, but we go just to watch our students doing something they enjoy and are proud of. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them.

The love of learning, of life, and most importantly, of people.

And while we continually are measured, rated, and disparaged by some people based solely on student test scores and remediation rates, we need to keep our focus on ourselves and on our students. It is the human factor that really matters.

It is you, the teacher, that really matters. And you matter EVERY day!

So go and get your classroom as ready as you possibly can. Realize that you will not get it all done. Appreciate the fact that you will make many mistakes in the first few days of school. That some things may just not be ready and that your plans may not work out perfectly. It is likely the kids won’t even notice.

Take the time to get you know your teacher ‘neighbors’ and form relationships. You will need them later in the year…and they will need you.

You are a teacher. You have the absolute privilege and power to impact lives. It is the chance of a lifetime and you won’t always know when you are making that impact. You may never know. But do it anyway.

Dr. Ginott was right. You are the decisive element in your classroom. So, be yourself. Relax. Laugh. Smile. Make mistakes. Learn. Connect. Love and nurture kids. Set high standards. Model good character and self-restraint. Teach every lesson as if it were the most important thing kids will ever learn. Enjoy what you do. Focus on getting better and help your students do the same.

Be YOU and always remember the impression YOU make on a child.

Do it every day – not because it’s your job – but because it matters to a child.

Thank you for all you will do to change lives this year. Good luck!