I had a friend with four-year-old twins, and she was telling me that when they were born the parents had only chosen one girl’s name so they named the first daughter but waited a few days to name the second. As we were sitting on the couch talking, we looked up to see her second daughter standing in the doorway, with silent tears running down her cheeks as she painfully asked, “Why didn’t you recognize me?”
Recently, our faculty was asked to write about their favorite teacher. I struggled with the task because I can think of four of my past teachers vying for that position. There was Mrs. McKenzie in Fourth Grade who made me The Reluctant Dragon. There was Mr. Fuege in Seventh Grade who, with a stern humor, made me work twice as hard as I had been to do a superior job. There was Mr. Magoon who taught “Man’s Search for Meaning” in High School, who inspired me to think and ponder and argue and wrote on my report card: “Glorious!” And there was Dr. Love in Social Psychology who argued with me throughout every class and when I disagreed with him would say, “Prove it,” causing me to spend endless hours in the library to research subjects.
All of these teachers were different, with different styles, subjects and attributes. I loved Mrs. McKenzie’s funny energy, admired Mr. Fuege’s quiet dignity, felt drawn into Mr. Magoon’s philosophical musings and hated Dr. Love until I realized how much I had learned from him. But when I tried to find the thread of what made them fantastic teachers I realized that, to my core, I felt that each one recognized me. Sometimes they recognized my inability to keep my mouth shut or my enormous energy or my stubbornness, but they also recognized the good qualities that came with those things and encouraged both. I felt safe with them because they knew me and liked me, and so I worked my tail off for them.
Kids come to school every year and encounter a number of new faces, but one of the most important new faces is that of the teacher. Imagine having your line manager change once a year. What would you want the new boss to know? How would you connect? What would you want them to ignore and what would you want them to notice? How would you know if you were recognized for your true self, especially if you didn’t yet consciously know what your “true self” is? What would make you feel safe and valued as an individual rather than part of a collective? What if your manager focused only on what you did wrong but not on what you did well? What if you felt that you had no particular gifts, no way to stand out, and your line manager didn’t “recognize” you at all?
Teachers hold a huge number of responsibilities – especially at our school. They are supposed to prepare the classrooms, differentiate subject matter, deliver specific content, manage thoughtful discussions, interact with parents, attend many meetings, structure projects, work in teams, manage classroom behaviors and create an environment of learning, among many other things. Like the job of parent, the job of teacher is never-ending and constantly demanding. But the most important responsibility for a good teacher (and for any parent) is to recognize the children in their care. They need to take time to notice, comment on and encourage the great, the surprising, the fun aspects of each individual child.
That recognition doesn’t have to be conveyed through praise, although praise is always nice. Mrs. McKenzie used a lot of praise, and it suited her. But recognition can be quietly humorous like Mr. Fuege or inspiringly challenging like Mr. Magoon or even confrontational like Dr. Love. Fundamentally, it must reflect back to the student the image of that student’s best self.
It isn’t easy to do that. But it is tons of fun. The reward, of course, is the satisfaction and gratitude that comes with knowing and appreciating so many really remarkable individuals with so many interesting and unexpected powers. And for the students, one reward is that they will remember their Mrs. McKenzies throughout their lives.