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Teach the Students You Have

Be Present, and Be Where Your Feet Are

We make it all about us and overlook the students we have sitting in front of us. If we aren’t careful and thoughtful, our classrooms can become more about teaching the students we want, rather than the ones we have. (Ken Patterson)

Ken Patterson’s Words Changed Me

Sometimes you read something that seems simple, yet it has a way of hitting you on a whole new level. Ken Patterson is a contributing writer for the new book, 100-No Nonsense Things All Teacher Should Stop Doing, and his chapter stopped me in my tracks. The ideas he shared were so simple, yet so profound that when accomplished, I would be able to take my teaching to the next level. I have heard more times than I can count that we need to be present and mindful in the classroom. However, this time is different. 

Patterson says,“Teach the students you have with dignity and acceptance, knowing that you believe in them as scholars.” 

It is easy to teach as if we have students without flaws. I know I have conducted a class where I taught as if everyone was absorbing everything I said, taking each opportunity to do extra practice, and thriving on the discussion I launched into.  

Success Comes When You Embrace Imperfection

In another mic drop moment, Ken Patterson says,“To deeply succeed, you must resolve that the students placed in your care will be the most imperfect students for you because you aren’t perfect either.”  Perfect comes from being completely present and owning who you can work with and what you can. Patterson’s contributing chapter reminded me of my favorite teaching movie, Mr. Holland's Opus. In the movie, Mr. Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss. realizes that magic happens when he begins to teach the students he has rather than focusing on the symphony he planned on conducting. 

When we teach the students we have, we are present. We might plan for their future, but true joy comes from knowing that we are all in and completely present. 

One of my favorite running books is titled Run The Mile You're In. Author and Olympic runner Ryan Hall talks about embracing where you are, and being present. It is not uncommon for runners to focus on what is yet to come, rather than fully experiencing where we are at. Hall advises runners to focus on living through mile 2, for example, even if it is not going as planned or feels brutal. Each mile or day of a school year needs to be experienced. Success comes when we lean into it, feel everything there is, and then let it go.  

 Be Where Your Feet Are

One of my favorite runners, Shalane Flanagan, tells moms,“Be where your feet are”.

What if we did that as teachers?  What if we took the opportunity to be where our feet are?  If it is 9:45 AM and our second hour, then it means we would be completely absorbed in the second hour, not looking ahead or planning for the 5th hour later in the day. There is a sense of calm knowing that the most important work to do is what we are doing. Giving students complete attention is a gift. 

Good Coaches Know How to Soak Up the Moment 

We can learn from coaches. A good coach knows how to assess where an athlete is at the moment. He or she then has an ability to think ahead yet be in the moment and actively guide an athlete. Two weeks ago, I watched our high school’s cross country and track coach guide one of our school’s best runners in the two-mile race. This coach had the challenge of telling his runner exactly where she was in the race and living through every lap while making decisions about what advice to offer her before her next lap. I noticed when he saw her coming around the curve of the track, he was 100 percent present in speaking to her, giving her perspective and direction for what was to come next. As she passed him and began her next lap, the coach was focused on planning, strategizing, and future thinking. When he was planning, he was one hundred percent planning. He continued to keep his eyes on his runner but was focused on where she could go next. 

Be Present, But Think About What’s Next

Just as the track coach was present, he was also planning.  

Be where your feet are. If you are talking to your team during a time out, or helping a student through a writing conference, be one hundred percent there. Work with exactly who is in front of you.  

Devote space to planning for the future.  

Sometimes there is an opportunity to plan in a quiet location without interruptions. 

However, sometimes we are forced to dream at a noisy track meet, busy airport or crowded grocery line.

Model What Being Present Looks Like

If we want students to focus on our class and embrace the opportunity to work with our content during our class period, we have to model what it looks like. Patterson ends his chapter with an incredibly empowering point. He says,“The more you slow down and focus on the students in front of you, the more likely they will develop into a more impactful group of students than you could ever dream of. Every student deserves you to be their greatest conductor, mentor, cheerleader, innovation, and support system.”   

When we fully embrace where our feet are and get excited to teach the students in front of us, we begin to make the impossible possible. 

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