Note: The following blog entry comes to us from our colleague and friend, Betsy K. Brown, who teaches and chairs the humanities program at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, with a focus on creative nonfiction, Betsy loves to share the goodness of words and stories with young people amid the beauty of the American Southwest.
This autumn I was a member of the first teacher cohort to participate in Leading Virtuous Communities, an eight-week course with the goal to develop the ability to “integrate a consideration of virtue, and an orientation toward virtue, into the practical, day-to-day decision-making processes of a school leader.” This class gave me time each week to think deeply about the kind of virtues that I desire to model and encourage in my daily life.
One of our final projects was to step into the shoes of a headmaster at the beginning of a school year and write a short speech communicating a leadership vision for a school. According to professor Stewart D. Friedman, a personal leadership vision is a “compelling image of an achievable future.” While I am not a headmaster myself, I found this writing project inspired in me both courage and hope.
Aristotle writes about the connection between courage and hope in his Nicomachean Ethics: “The coward, then, is a despairing sort of person; for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand, has the opposite disposition; for confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition.” Vision statements are about hope for the future, and thus exhort colleagues to confident courage.
Whether it be on the verge of a new calendar year or a new school year, a vision statement can be an exercise in being brave. I hope that my first attempt at one, copied below, will do the same for you.
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I keep one post-it note on my desk all year long. It says, “Love the kids. Know the books. Name the good.”
Let’s imagine that someday I have a son or a daughter. This child might grow up in Arizona and walk into this building one hot August day for her first day of 8th grade. She is greeted at the door by a jovial and bright young teacher by the name of Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin is, say, her medieval history teacher. Over the course of the first semester my imaginary future daughter studies Constantine, Benedict, and Charlemagne. She gets excited about knights and saints and books, and on hard days these stories enliven her when she is in the uncomfortable and angsty throes of inevitable adolescence. When she is having a hard day, she knows Mr. Martin will still be smiling at the door ready to share a story with her and exhort her to find joy in it.
Mr. Martin is currently seventeen years old. Every afternoon last year he helped the French teacher hold the doors and joyfully called, “see you tomorrow!” to the sixth graders leaving our building—tidy ones and untucked ones alike. Several times a semester this high school junior volunteered to teach lessons to the middle schoolers on the Hundred Year’s War and the Black Death. The younger students adore him. Young Mr. Martin decided in eighth grade he would someday like to be a history teacher. He is preparing well.
The moral of this story is not that we exist primarily to teach future teachers, bearded and bow-tied carbon copies of ourselves. The moral of this story is not even that young Mr. Martin will someday get a good job and be nice to the people around him. It is that Mr. Martin is beginning to love the kids, know the books, and name the good. Thanks to your good will, he is slowly transforming from an isolated and fearful adolescent into a young man who loves the right things and shares them with others.
At the end of each day, I look at this post-it. And on a day when I’m not too tired to remember, I ask myself, did I love my students by seeking what is good for them today? Did I deeply contemplate the curriculum today? Did I show gratitude to my colleagues today?
Cicero once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others.” This year, like every year, will often be hard. Our desks will be laden with things other than my one post-it note: with tests to grade, forms to fill out, old coffee cups we’ve had no time to take downstairs and wash. Students and adults alike will enter this building carrying burdens of all kinds. This is part of being human. But we have reason for gratitude. We have a community of teachers and staff who help lighten these burdens for one another and for their students. Young Mr. Martin, and all the other scholars, can become men and women of goodwill because of many moments of service that go unnoticed. So thank you. Remember this year, when a million distractions compete with your attention, that teaching is a human job. It is a humane job. Love the kids. Know the books. Name the good. And thank you for being a teacher.