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Jim’s Message: The Best Life Lessons I’ve Learned, I Learned as a Teacher

February 10, 2012

Jim Harris, Managing Director, Nelnet Partner Solutions

I started my career, fresh out of college, as an English teacher.  I taught for six years.  I also coached three different sports, created yearbooks, directed two plays (which I had no idea how to do), and basically volunteered to do anything and everything.  I was ambitious, and I was going to change the world — one student at a time.

Unfortunately, during that time, the school district I was working in was going through a series of salary freezes; I was still making about the same as a first year teacher after six years. I was also waiting tables on the weekend and trying to support a young family.  So, I made the determination that I would do something different.  I am very happy I did; I love my current career.  Still, I will never regret being a teacher.  I love that I continue to talk to many of my former students on Facebook.  I had so many wonderful students, and I learned a tremendous amount from all of them.

TESA – This was a hot term in the teaching world in the early 90’s.  The acronym stood for Teacher Expectations – Student Achievement. I don’t remember all the details of the methodology; but I do remember the notion that if you have high expectations for your students, then the probability is high that they will actually do so.  I have found this to be very true in many aspects of life.  When we expect great things from our co-workers, our families, and even ourselves…we, much of the time anyway, see some amazing results.

The average attention span is about 22 minutes.  I remember learning in one of my education classes that the average attention span for a junior high student is 22 minutes.  I realized when I got to the classroom that this was actually optimistic.  You need to grab their attention immediately and keep them engaged. After about 20 minutes, they are thinking about something else (or see something shiny on the floor) and you have lost them.

Ironically, I have found that most adults have the same attention span as junior high students.  Watch how people begin to fidget and doodle on their paper about 20 minutes into a meeting. Try to change up the content, get them involved, make them move around.  Guess we never grow up in some ways.  (Alan Ishida on my team has only about a 5 minute attention span — then I think he starts thinking about his next meal.)

Don’t listen to hearsay.  My first three years of teaching were at an alternative high school for students that were determined to be “at risk”.   Some were pregnant teens.  Some were kids kicked out of high school because they had behavior problems.  Some just felt overwhelmed at the big school and weren’t successful.  Many intentionally tried to look “tough.”  There were about a hundred students and probably a hundred different reasons why I was now their English and Speech/Debate teacher.  These were my favorite students and my best years of teaching.

I remember when we would get our class rosters. The other teachers would warn me about having “that” kid in my class and start telling me about the problems they had with that individual.  As a young teacher, it took courage to reject their comments and advice. I learned to “jokingly” tell them that I didn’t want to hear that I was going to have problems with a certain student.  It goes back to the TESA approach.  I expected that I would get along with all of my students and that they were inherently all good souls.  That worked very well for me.  It also gave the student a fresh start, unsoiled from their past mistakes, and it taught me to me go into new situations and meet people with an open mind.

Shakespeare is meant to be watched, not read, by teenagers.  We all remember the time when we had to read Shakespeare out loud in class.  I was required to teach Romeo and Juliet, my least favorite of all of Shakespeare’s plays.  The worst thing I could have done, in my opinion, would be to assign non-interested high school boys to read Romeo’s part; and, usually more mature high school girls to read the lines of Juliet.  Shakespeare himself wrote the plays to be seen, not read like a textbook. So, I always let them watch the movie first before they read the play.  This goes against the norms of most English teachers, but sometimes you should go against the grain.

Always listen with your heart.  My last year of teaching was probably the hardest. It was the year I lost a student to suicide.

David was in two of my classes. He was popular and funny — a good student and just a real character.  He was on the basketball team. On game days, all of the boys had to wear ties. He always showed up to my 1st class, tie in hand, asking me to teach him how to tie it.  Basically, he just wanted me to do it for him, since it was always moments before the first bell when he stopped by with his tie.

On the morning of the last day of his life, I tied his tie.  We were joking around, and he was his usual affable self.  The day turned bad for him; he and his girlfriend broke up that day.  He ended his life in the middle of the night before our next day of class.  I don’t know how to describe the feeling of loss for all of my students…his classmates…his teachers.  Despite seating chart changes, his desk remained empty for the rest of the year.  Though unspoken, we all understood that was still David’s desk.

I have often looked back and wondered if there was anything I could have done differently, but I don’t know what it would be. I know his life, and his death, left a lasting impact on me and the countless others who knew and loved him.  I realized that while I would have done absolutely anything possible to have prevented his death, I don’t know what that would have been.

In other words, I need to try to live each day in a way that I won’t regret and that the people I care about know how much I care about them.

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