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Gratitude Past Due: Lessons

on Culture, People and




When unable to sleep, I sometimes join my Twitter PLN, a network often preoccupied with frustrating issues of public education. That’s when I ask, “Of all the things I can choose to spend time on and care about, what’s most important to the learners and educators I serve?”

That leads me back to my first mentor in education, a bond that began my first day of teaching and ended four years ago at his eulogy. Championing the powerless, he was a fierce voice of passion, cutting to the heart of what it means to be a leader, a teacher and a learner.

Today he might have become a gung-ho member of Teach For America, but in the 1960s he entered the Peace Corps after graduating from an Ivy League school, then dedicated his life to education. He taught me to never give up on the hope our profession offers. What I learned still helps me see beyond the issues, divides and crises of my educational heart.

Recently, kindergarteners enchanted me with their enthusiasm, chattering about becoming Olympic swimmers, artists, paleontologists, builders and even teachers. They led me to lessons from my mentor that helped me understand that nothing holds more power than learners’ voices and that we are teachers first, no matter our position.

Lesson 1: You set the tone for school culture. Build and model a culture of learning, not punishment, for adults and the children you serve.

How can you create chaos in the first 10 minutes of teaching? On my first day, I did that. Just pull a snake out of a pillowcase in a roomful of 7th graders, and say, “He won’t bite,” then stand there with sharp teeth embedded in your hand, blood dripping down.

With kids screaming, I thought, “It’s my first and last day as a teacher.” Then the principal opened the door, never saying a word as I attempted to regain control. He waited until he knew I was OK. “I thought you were going to fire me,” I told him later. His response: “How would that help you learn to teach?” I laughed. He smiled. In that moment, we launched my career in education.

Lesson 2: Keep your door unconditionally open and be available to those you serve. Relish opportunities to help people find solutions.

An eternal optimist who never saw problems as rocks that couldn’t be moved, my mentor always found pathways over, under and around problems. In recent years, after our paths diverged, I would knock on his door or pick up the phone or send an e-mail. I still hear his voice, caring but brooking no escape from responsibility: “So are you going to spend your time admiring the problem or solving it? Do you just want to ‘awfulize’ about this or work it out?”

Or I might hear him comment on who really owned the problem: “Pam, you can bring your monkey into my office — and I’ll pet your monkey. I’ll even feed your monkey, but when you leave, please take your monkey with you.”

Lesson 3: Determination comes from inside people. It moves adults to remain open to new ways of reaching a child disconnected from learning. It emerges from passion, inspiration and joy, the product of both work and play.

At the memorial service for my mentor, we understood that we belonged to him as learners and him to us as teacher. We had been collectively gifted with the opportunity to grow careers grounded in his compassion and love for life and learning. We all paused that day for a moment of gratitude past due for his words.

Our children are still developing into adults. They make mistakes, and our job is to make sure they learn from them and are not defeated by them.

Make decisions based on what is best for children, no matter what.

A master weaver, he created a fabric of influential professional voices, facilitating us to find our teaching voice, our leadership voice and our personal voice in the service of young people. He articulated a powerful vision that all children (and educators) will learn given enough time. He taught us that what is important to learn transcends that which is rote, and we must always be committed to creating rich learning options for every child we serve.

Every day he modeled unswerving passion for and gratitude to our profession, a life’s choice for a man whose brilliance and resources allowed him the option of pursuing the career of his choice.

Through compelling stories of teaching, learning and leading, he defined a profession that is about culture, people and determination rather than issues that others outside the profession have defined for us. His words evolved into mine, shared with younger colleagues who need to hear their work is important and valued and that failure, though sometimes painful, is important to our own learning.

I’m grateful for my mentor’s lifetime lessons, the most important of which is to ensure young people leave us with a love of learning and a sense of belonging and value for others, regardless of differences.

Pam Moran is superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Va. She blogs at https://superintendent.k12albemarle.org. E-mail: moran@k12albemarle.org


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