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Rethinking what it means to be a “real” teacher


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When I was a first-year middle school counselor, I went on an outdoor education trip with my sixth graders. Just before we left, I learned that I would be in charge of teaching the kids compassing. If my new coworkers had known me for more than five minutes, they would have understood that no one should ever put me in charge of navigation. The fact that I’d be guiding 11-year-olds through the woods made the situation even more absurd.

I have a history when it comes to getting lost in the wilderness. I went on my first outdoor ed trip in fifth grade. I was blindfolded on a mountain top in New Hampshire and spun several times. I was so dizzy, I fell down. The teacher then took off my blindfold and told me to find my way to back to our lodge, which was somewhere downhill. All of my classmates managed to find their way back with no trouble. Meanwhile, I ended up in a nearby village. A shopkeeper phoned for help, and a baffled cop drove me back to my group.

The second time I got lost was during college orientation. I signed up for a hiking trip, and after a couple hours trudging up the mountain, I found myself in the middle of the pack. The fastest students had sprinted ahead, and the slowest hikers were nowhere to be seen. When I hit a fork in the path, I had to make the call on my own. Predictably, I chose wrong.

I still remember my trip guide, a soft-spoken, outdoorsy Dartmouth senior named Eagle. He was traumatized when he got to the tents and realized he had lost a member of his crew. I wasn’t so great myself. By the time he found me, I was so cold and anxious that I shook for hours.

So when I went on the sixth grade outdoor ed trip as a staff member, I knew to play it safe. I stayed with the group. I veered nowhere. But late at night, I was presented with a crying, homesick girl. Her dad happened to be chaperoning, so I took her to see him. He told me he’d handle it from there, and I headed back to my room.

En route, the electricity went out. The outdoor lights that had guided me through thick fog went dark. I froze. Then I sat down on the mountain and called my husband. His first words were, “Good grief, don’t move. Seriously, just wait for the lights to come back on.” He knew that if I tried to find my way, I’d end up sleeping with the coyotes. To my relief, the lights eventually flickered on.

The next morning, it was time to teach compassing. Fortunately, the principal was co-leading the activity. I barely knew him, and I immediately came clean. “I have no sense of direction. I’m truly awful at this stuff. And by the way, I’m not even a teacher!” He chose to fixate on the last part of my confession. “Everyone working in the school is a teacher,” he said. I remember considering his statement and concluding, “That’s kind of inspirational and nice, but nope, I’m definitely not a teacher.”

Still, his comment stuck with me. Several years later, I know he’s right. I’m at a different school, and I work with kids in a much wider age range. I field notes every day that are addressed to “the feelings teacher.” I spend significantly more time in classrooms and have more confidence. But none of this is why I feel like a teacher.

Instead, my attitude has changed. My principal knew something I was still years away from understanding. Whether we’re a cafeteria manager reminding kids to recycle, or a counselor modeling conflict resolution, or a principal setting a tone of civility, we’re all teachers. It’s not about hours logged in the classroom, it’s about using our position as mentors and influencers to turn out competent, happy kids with good character. We’re all guides, whether or not we have a sense of direction.

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Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor and journalist.

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