Engaging Again and Again

Ryan Quinn Posted by Ryan Quinn, Associate Professor of Management, University of Louisville.

Ryan is an Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business at the University of Louisville. He researches, teaches, trains, and consults on topics related to leadership and change management.

By Ryan W.

By Ryan W. Quinn

My common refrain when talking about teaching and working with teachers is “to love the people you teach.” I believe that’s what we, as teachers, should do. And I also believe that expression can be a platitude: It is so true that we ignore it or take it for granted. As a result, we often do not love the people we teach even when we think we do.

A few weeks ago, I was training some public school teachers. One participant raised her hand and said, “Every morning I forgive my students.” I loved this sentence. Someone who hears or reads this sentence out of context may find it off-putting. After all, what have your students done that they need your forgiveness? Maybe the problem is you, not your students!

Re-Learning to Love, Every Day, Every Hour

My answer to such a criticism is, You are right! The problem is me! The students may have problems as well, but I am an imperfect person who sometimes struggles to love, and I need to re-learn it over and over and over again.

I would also argue, however, that any teacher who forgives his or her students every day may love his or her students more completely than the teacher who simply recites the platitude that he or she loves her students. The teacher who simply “loves” his or her students sees love as a static trait that requires no work. The teacher who forgives his or her students every day sees love as an accomplishment, and therefore as something he or she can strive for again and again, perhaps doing it more fully and completely each time.

The End of Molasses Classes

The event at which I was training teachers recently was the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s 2020 conference for their state’s teachers and administrators. I was a keynote speaker on the first day and ran a number of training sessions as well. When I was preparing for the event, I read the biographies of the keynote speakers for the other two days as well. I was impressed by the biography of Ron Clark, founder of the Ron Clark Academy, national award-winning teacher, subject of the movie The Ron Clark Story, and author of several books. So I bought a copy of his most recent book, The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck—101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers. I think Ron Clark may provide the best example of re-engaging that I have ever seen (seeing him speak after I read his book only confirmed this).

 To read Ron’s book or to hear him speak can be intimidating. You get the idea that he is always “on” because he is so high-energy. In fact, as I read reviews of his books on Amazon.com, there were many complaints from readers that people who “have lives” could never do all the things that Ron does: show up students’ homes to help, bake cookies, design over-the-top classroom activities, take students on trips all over the world, and on and on. It can be an exhausting experience just to read his book. And Ron admits himself in the book that he does not have as much personal time as he would like, given the type of teacher and change agent that he has committed himself to be.

As inspiring as his stories are, however, and as useful as his ideas may be, the real gem of his book may not lie in the way he engages his work, but in the way he re-engages his work. If we read carefully, we will see how he has to convince himself to get out of his Snuggie and go do something for his school, or how he felt fake talking to rich people to ask for help in getting his school started until a local elite found him hiding behind a plant and told him to “Get out there and meet those people and be yourself and make me proud!” or how he wanted to watch TV rather than mow the lawn.

Again and again, if we read closely, we see that Ron is subject to the same temptations to be average or even mediocre that all of us are. The difference between Ron and the rest of us is not that Ron is an exceptional human being. The difference is that Ron sees being exceptional as an accomplishment—something that he must re-commit himself to over and over again in the daily, hourly, or minute-by-minute activities of life.

Ron, then, is like the teacher who forgives her students every day. He is like you and I. And each of us needs to re-commit to be exceptional again and again in the thing that we are doing right now.