Remember that one teacher?

When I was getting my teacher certification, there was this school director who painted a picture of the lonely mornings of a teacher. He recounted days waking up and walking into an empty building not knowing if the things he planned would work.

“No matter how much planning one does,” he would say, “when you’re dealing with people, things are always uncertain. It’s easy to believe that students wake up and come to class single-mindedly focused on your demise.”

There is no morning so lonely as the morning of a teacher.

After this sunk in, he would then mention each of us by name: “And while Reagan is braving snowy streets in South Dakota, Allie will drive to school in the dark in North Carolina and Tom will be awake before the rest of Boston. Maybe some days the only thing you can cling to is the fact that there are other people trying to be extraordinary teachers across the country. It’s lonely sometimes, but it can be done. It has to be done.”

I’ll never forget that; I would pull that memory to the front of my head when I’d have the kind of lonely mornings he talked about. I’d then remember the teachers in my life that had a lasting influence on me, and how they must have felt the same thing throughout their career. But they woke up early anyway, they overcame the things inside that cried for comfort and they tried something new, readjusted and tried something else.

I’ve always been interested in the difference between regular teachers and extraordinary teachers. Beyond all of the external pressures that teachers face – in addition to a regular life they’re trying to live – they consistently prioritize the things that matter over the things that are measured.

So, it’s a privilege to be co-facilitating a SXSWedu core conversation today with my buddy Hudson Baird of PelotonU about those memorable teachers. In addition to meeting all of the requirements placed upon them by their department, school, district, state – they find a way to create an environment where students feel like they belong to something larger than themselves.

We’ll talk about the tension that arises when a teacher chooses to make space for the things that matter and don’t let the measurables and metrics bog them down. There are a host of pressures driving most environments to prioritize metrics – which makes sense, because that’s what’s easiest. Good teachers are encumbered by the things that are measured. It’s easy to get caught up talking about graduation rates, test scores, attendance and behavior plans because that’s what is trackable – and that’s how many teachers are evaluated.

While many metrics are important and keep teachers accountable, no one counts the conversations over lunch, the extra hour tutoring when rest is needed, and the additional edits that might improve a student’s writing. Those intangible moments aren’t shown on a spreadsheet – but those are the moments we value. Those are the books we read and the movies we watch: the stories of the teacher who broke away from metrics and focused on what mattered for their students and for themselves.

Today we’re going to talk about the need to prioritize those moments; to do that, we think it’s essential to get clear on what matters in addition to what’s measured. First, this means understanding what your students need outside the subject matter and curriculum of your class. What do they need as people? Second, this means understanding what matters to you – what makes you come alive – and how can you weave those themes into your classroom in an authentic way? Because students can smell it when it’s fake. Then, how can you make your classroom about those larger things?

This is hard because there is no roadmap and there are external forces working against the creation of a culture focused on things that matter. You risk judgment from peers, lack of funding for a meaningful project, immeasurable progress, and so on. It’s hard because there’s never one right way to do it and it requires consistent reflection and recalibration.

It’s also hard because there are no concrete metrics for success. No one is going to validate you or measure your soul-level scores on a rubric – you’re going to have to do that yourself. But the teachers we remember are the ones who find joy in the uncertainty of that gray area because they trust it means they are doing something true and different and right – for themselves and their students. Even if that means failure, even if it means trying something new that lands you flat on your face. Because sometimes, the best lesson a teacher can give their students is the chance to witness honest, well-intentioned failure.

So who is that one teacher you remember? How did they push past this tension to focus on what matters over what’s measured? In addition to being subject matter experts, how did they prioritize the things that mattered for students outside of the curriculum? How could you tell that their work also made them come alive? How did they reconcile external challenges and what do you think they did to keep their fire lit internally? Were they willing to fail for the sake of creating memorable moments that mattered for their students?

Being a fearless teacher with an unshakable focus on the things that matter is difficult – but those are the teachers we remember.  Those are the teacher we need.

We’ll close our talk today with the charge that this can’t be done without community. We’re going to invite participants to give us their information and we’ll call them in a month to check in and offer an ear, thoughts or advice from a different perspective.

If anything, we hope to create a small community to remind extraordinary teachers that early in the morning, in different cities across the country, there are others who wake up with a little bit of nervousness in their bones and recommit to being teachers who focus on the things that matter.


The banner image depicts sunrise through my classroom window in Mission, South Dakota