Why Building a Better Teacher Begins With Encouragement


(Photo Courtesy: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)

(Photo Courtesy: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)

Retaining teachers in education is important work, but attracting aspiring individuals to the classroom might be just as critical. Accomplishing either of these goals will require dedication and encouragement.

It was a balmy fall afternoon just after I finished the Pre-Medical program and my Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at Wayne State University. I was working an assistant in a medical research clinic as on anemia and chronic kidney disease studies. In this role, as well as in many of my endeavors outside of the university setting, I was heavily involved in instructional activities. From communicating findings from research, tutoring other students in math and science, and even teaching piano to young children, I was doing a lot of informal teaching.

It was this day that the course of the rest of my life changed.

In a conversation with one of my mentors at the time, Nancy Toutant, I was pushed to be skeptical of my own career trajectory. At that time, I was someone in “M.D. or bust” mentality. Nancy pointed out to me how much of my life was spent in various “teaching” roles and how much potential I demonstrated in all of them. She asked me why I was choosing medicine and not education for my career path. For the first time ever, I didn’t have a solid answer.

I wanted to be a physician since I was in the 5th grade. An uncommon eye disease slowly took my vision from an early age and required me to have double cornea transplant surgery as a young adult. Having my sight restored inspired me to want to help others as a physician. This lifelong passion was then, at that conversational moment, something of which I was not so certain.

“You’d make a great teacher, you know?” Nancy said to me with a smile.

And from that discussion, her words resonated with me and gave me pause as I considered the next steps in my career. Shortly after considerable reflection, I realized that the conversation with Nancy that day helped me realize my potential to help others in a different way–as an educator.

I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program to get my teaching certificate in science and become a high school science teacher. One year later, I was in my first classroom teaching, and five years after that I was selected to represent over 100,000 teachers in my state as the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Now here I am two years later, an instructional coach in a large suburban district in southeast Michigan, supporting hundreds of teachers and impacting thousands of students in my work. Not to mention the hundreds of kids I have personally taught in my science classes over the years.

One such former student, Katie, recently wrote me on Twitter to tell me about how she is doing in college over in Utah. She mentioned she’s in a program that requires her to take physics. She had me for introductory high school physics four years ago. Katie explained how nervous she was initially to have to take physics in college, especially after so many years since having it. She thought a lot about my class, and the experience she had in it.

Two key things in her keep-in-touch story stood out to me, one of which was not so alarming, but the other of which surprised me most about what she. Katie told me that she didn’t remember a lot of physics from my class. While I should on some principle be not so pleased about this, it didn’t surprise nor bother me. But the thing that surprised me most about what she said was that she told me the most valuable thing she learned in my class was that she can learn.

Here’s the tweets (strung together) that I received:

“Just wanted to thank you for teaching me that I can conquer and do well at physics. I’m taking college physics now. At first I was overwhelmed and thought no way can I do this, but I remembered your class and that it is possible. Even though I didn’t retain all of the info, I’ll never forget the experience of learning that I CAN actually learn. Keep inspiring!”

While that experience would have been more than enough for me to receive that note, I then received another tweet about another former student, this time from my chemistry class; however, this message came from a father of a former student two years later. This father wrote me to say that he saw my name in something he was reading on the American Journal of Kidney Disease website and then contacted me through Twitter to see if I was the same guy who taught his son chemistry. After confirming, he informed me that his son learned so much from me and is now a freshmen in a pre-medicine program himself.

A former student of mine is now becoming a physician himself! I was elated to receive these, and all messages I get from former students of mine. But all of this makes me think: what if I had never been encouraged to go into teaching? What if people had tried to scare me away for all the wrong reasons, or discourage me from achieving my potential?

The making of great teachers and great teaching, as well as the attraction and retention of individuals into the profession first begins with encouragement. If I can be but one example of that, then I have achieved my childhood dream to help others.

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Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

About Gary G Abud Jr

Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

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