Teaching teaches me more than learning ever did

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

Four years ago, I heard a simple formula for the key to success in school: Show up; be on time; do the work. This message was intended for the students in the C.H.O.I.C.E. (Choosing Healthy Options in Cooperative Education) program at JDHS, a collection of nearly 100 very diverse students who don't always make it easy to love them. But I did love them four years ago as a volunteer and continue to today as one of their teachers who now repeats this mantra to them.

Schools are institutions and are often seen as an artificial realm, a holding tank before getting to the "real world." However, school is the real world. What you need to learn in life is taught in school - whether you're a teacher or a student. When teaching, you connect with other humans - students, colleagues, parents and community members. These interactions are real. As a teacher, I learn more from the School of Life - lessons in living in the real world - than I have in any other setting.

My students have become fundamental to my life lessons. In the School of Life, where experiences and human interactions are the curriculum, they are my teachers. Last week, my students and I were on an Alaskan Teen Institute Retreat. The theme was "Diversity and Conflict Resolution." I love retreats - they very often are what keep me liking my work. However, I didn't want to go; I wasn't feeling up to it; I was tired, sick and just plain not in the mood. But I went. I was on time. I did the work.

And work it is. As the lead teacher, this entails putting out lots of fires, hopefully small ones (hopefully metaphorical ones!). The majority of my work, what I am supposed to do at a retreat, is to talk to students. Maybe because they are acting out and I need to calm them down. Maybe because they are really struggling with an issue in their lives outside of school, like cancer or a recently deceased parent or the challenge of living on their own. Maybe school is worrying them. Maybe they're simply having fun and want to let me know. It's such a gift to have human interactions and personal connections as a part of my "to do list." It's also a gift to be able to learn from the School of Life daily. The retreat was no exception. During and after the retreat, I found myself in an improved state of being. As much as I didn't feel like going, the retreat was exactly where I needed to be. My lesson for the day - that when you do the work, especially the work you don't want to do, you usually feel better - was found there, in my interactions with my students. Most of my lessons for the day, the week or the year are found in those conversations. All I have to do is show up, be on time and do the work.

April 29 was my birthday - a day I hoped would be simply fabulous. Instead, two minutes into my second class, I was pulled out into the hall to hear devastating news about someone I care about. I felt like crying, but I had to continue to show up and do the work, so I went back inside. My students perceptively asked what was wrong and leapt to comfort me. A student with whom I had been in conflict kindly told me it was OK to sit in the hallway if I needed time. Two students, who are smart but struggle with waking up on time and staying awake in class, were the teachers for the day, explaining the study guide to the class. My students were so gentle and compassionate - I can only hope to give to others the kindness they showed me that day. I learned how I will receive what I need, even if it is from the most unlikely source. Even though it was an extremely difficult day, I showed up; I was on time; I did the work. And it was worth it. I gained some real-life lessons about being a role model and about giving others the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Don't doubt it: Real life is right inside these walls.

• Leslie Kupper is the Juneau-Douglas High School C.H.O.I.C.E. math teacher.

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