• J Flewelling

Opening the Door: Two Crucial Lessons I Learned in Education

I distinctly remember that day. After meeting with the principal, I walked the short walk across the hall to my very first classroom. The building smelled of fresh wax, carpet cleaner, and summer (there weren't any air conditioners). The walls of my room were a nice baby blue color as if somehow the school was expecting to give birth soon. And as I stood in the doorway, I remember being overwhelmed with all the thoughts, emotions, and possibilities that swirled in my naïve head. At that moment, all the excitement of graduation and having my first job melted into a puddle of anxiety as I thought, "Will I be good enough? Will the students like me? Will I fit in with the faculty?"

Over the next couple of weeks, I got to know my students. Jason, who wore the ankle bracelet for juvenile detention, was outgoing and wanted everyone to like him. This often got him into trouble because he didn't realize where the line was until he was well past it. Mark was quiet, confident, and intelligent. When his dad got drunk, he received the brunt of it. Sammi loved art and didn't think she was smart enough for science. She couldn't understand why she had to take it.

It was during this time that I learned a lesson they can't really teach you in your education classes: relationships in education are a cornerstone to learning. When you find out what makes your students tick, you find out what inspires them, what motivates them, and ultimately, what drives them. As we began studying the solar system in Astronomy, Sammi and I began dreaming of what we could do with the baby blue walls. She enlisted the help of some friends and the support of the art teacher. By the end of the year, not only did I have a beautiful mural of the solar system on one of my walls, but Sammi found a way to value science and incorporate it into her passion!

Mark and I steadily plugged through. We would often talk about life and how it wasn't what either of us had expected. Many times I thought I had the easy end of the deal as I listened to him describe his home life. More often than not, he just needed someone to say, "You can do it. You are going to make something of yourself. This is just temporary." He went on to join the Air Force and managed to escape the family cycle he had been trapped in.

And, Jason was one that got away. I struggled all year to connect him to the wonderful world of science that I love so much. To find out what made him tick. To connect with him personally. But it never happened. Being a new teacher, my toolbox was inadequately and woefully empty. Looking back at Jason through the lens of the experience I have now, there are so many things I would have done differently with him. I still wonder where he is and if someone else was able to do better than I.

Sometimes learning the lesson of empathy was easy, other times, like with Jason, I struggled. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. To find a common ground when it doesn't look like there is one and build a relationship from it. When we find ways to connect with our students and connect them with each other, we find ways to inspire them beyond what they ever thought they were capable of. And amazingly, each of them will impact and inspire us in ways we'll never forget. Whether it is all the Jasons I've had saying, "I don't know what I need. Help me." Or, all the Marks saying, "Thank you for believing in me." Each of them inspire me to develop better relationships and promote empathy in my classroom.

The second lesson came several years later. When my wife and I decided to start a family, we wanted to move closer to one of our parents. Again, stepping out of the principal's office I walked the short distance to my new classroom. The building had that slightly musty smell that schools often get when the air conditioner just can't keep up. The walls of my new classroom were a nice brown and orange color that looked like the school might be getting ready to throw up a hippy. And as I stood in this doorway, I found myself having much the same anxieties as before, "Will I measure up? Will the lessons I taught (and learned) in my former school be enough in this new school? Will I be a good fit for these students and faculty?"

And again, over the next couple of weeks I began intently getting to know my students. What I found was this new school was about as opposite as you could get. It graduated over 500 students; whereas, my first school graduated 80. It was pure suburban; the other was pure rural (They even had a "Drive Your Combine to School Day!" in which some of them would get up as early as 3 in the morning in order to drive their combines to school! If you think your commute is bad, keep in mind a combine runs about an average of 5 mph!) Where my first school had students in fairly similar economic statuses, this new school had students that ran the gamut from upper, middle, and lower classes. My first school was 99% Caucasian. This new school was filled with all sorts of diversity from African American to Serbian to Macedonian to Pakistani students.

The more I looked at my experiences in both schools, the more I came to realize the value in the cry for equity. Equity in education isn't giving everyone the same education; it's making it fair by giving everyone a quality education. My students in this new school didn't need the same things that my former students needed in order to be successful. In order to give them a quality education, there were a lot of things I had to change about the way I interacted with them, presented the material, and motivated them. My rural students had very different needs than my suburban students, or even urban students. They each don't need the same curricular resources, social emotional resources, etc. But they do each need access to high quality educators and a system of education that provides them opportunities to succeed in whatever field they choose… no matter where they come from. It became my responsibility to provide an equitable education to my students no matter what their background.

As the 2018 Indiana Teacher of the Year, I have the privilege of completing a Year of Service during the 18-19 school year. During this year, I'm humbled to work with our DOE on Indiana's STEM Council developing our statewide STEM Plan. I'm grateful for the incredible opportunity to visit colleges speaking to pre-service teachers. And, I'm honored to be an ambassador for education across our great state. As this year begins, I stand opening a different door into a different classroom. My walls aren't painted blue. And, it doesn't smell like wax. But this time, my toolbox is full, and my courage is strong. Because, I learned a long time ago that the battle for equity and empathy provides a foundation for every student that will catapult them to become the next generation of educators, scientists, company owners, medical professionals, etc. Will you open the door with me?

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