Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Teacher's Obituary

Am I the only person who has ever Googled their own name for fun and found obituaries? It certainly takes the fun out of it but it also provides some great food for thought! When I did this a few years ago some of my namesakes had made very meaningful impressions on the people in their lives, and I couldn't help but wonder what my own obituary would say.

My family would say nice things, I'm sure there's some sort of law about that sort of thing. And my friends, well they're friends for a reason right? Then I thought about the people I have spent most of my waking hours with while on the planet, my students. What would they have to say about me?

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who taught me how to add fractions.

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who helped me learn the flowering parts of a plant.

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who ruined my life with homework assignments!

The possibilities I considered kind of went downhill from there. Realizing this was way too important to leave to the hands of fate, I decided to work backwards. What would I like my students to say about me? Something that started out as a bit of fun, soon became a serious activity that took hours of contemplation. It took a few days but I eventually decided upon:

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who taught me that I'm brave, I'm smart and that I can make a difference.

Feeling smug that I could finally articulate what I would like my legacy to be, I kicked back and rolled the sound of it around in my mind as if I was at a wine tasting event. Then I realized-it's one thing to write your own obituary but living up to it is another matter!

I decided to make a conscious effort every day to push kids beyond their comfort zone. I put a sign outside my classroom door that said "Come to learn." I wanted my students to know before they walked through the door that they would be challenged , made to think, try new things and be expected to achieve what they never thought they could. Their learning path may be a rocky one, they may fall, they may get lost along the way, they may find parts of the journey scary, but we would be in it together, and we would help and guide each other along the way.

I put a sign on the inside of my door that said, "Leave to lead." We talked a lot about what that meant but one student demonstrated it beautifully when she voiced her concern about the student body's lack of diligence with peanut allergy rules. Having a severe peanut allergy herself she was frustrated by students who didn't realize how their careless actions could have such negative consequences. The class brainstormed possible solutions and she, uncomfortably, but bravely, led a mini campaign to heighten awareness by speaking to students, making posters and announcements and sharing her story. She made a real difference not only in terms of making students think about the consequences of their actions but also in making them realize that they could, in fact, make a difference.

By accepting the invitation to lead this student modeled for others the potential each individual has to evoke change. A floodgate opened and classroom meetings became a forum for identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. Within two years my students placed second in the national Siemens We Can Change the World challenge with their Trash Free Friday Campaign and the signs "Come to learn" and "Leave to lead" took on a life of their own. Learning in the classroom was no longer sufficient for my students. Exploring and discovering was just the beginning of their journey, doing something with the knowledge they acquired and taking action became the focus.

We now regularly look for opportunities to participate in hands on problem solving activities that require students to explore their roles and responsibilities as global citizens. Today we Skyped with one of our partner schools in the Challenge 20/20 project to share what we have learned about climate change over the last few weeks. We've been working with schools in Columbia, Bahrain and the United States to examine global warming. Once students pooled their collective wisdom today, they began to identify possible solutions. It was fascinating to watch the kids bounce around ideas and from a tiny seed of an idea develop a whole campaign to "Half the Light". Students will now be challenging their school communities to see how much energy can be saved by turning on just half of the classroom lights.

As an adult learner I am excited to have the opportunity to participate in a similar collaboration with teachers from around the globe. As part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum in Washington last month, I was introduced to four other teachers from Mauritius, Egypt, Canada and Thailand. Over the last few weeks I have been putting together a series of lessons to support the theme for Shout 2012: Water Matters. Shout connects educators with rich content, tools and expertise that get students to take action on global issues. The work on this project took on even greater significance for me after watching Academy Award nominated film producer Elise Pearlstein present Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary about the global water crisis. It's a must see call to action and will be distributed to U.S. theaters in 2012.

I'm not dead yet, though I do have to check twice on Monday mornings, and some may say that thinking about one's own obituary is a bit morbid. However, this exercise has served as a compass for me and the direction I have wanted my teaching to take over the last few years. If one kid feels that they are brave and smart and that they can make a difference after being in my class I'll feel proud. If they all do, I'll know that I will have lived a life of consequence.

What will your teacher obituary say?


  1. When we can envision and realize our own mortality, then we can truly begin to live. What a powerful reflection this post is, QPG. I admire your ability to step outside of yourself and examine your work as an outsider would. What a great paradigm for growth!

  2. You spoke just as wisely and eloquently as this when you were a little girl with ringlets
    Your cousin
    Frank CB

  3. I think you must have mistaken me for somebody else..ringlets, eloquence and wisdom? That was definitely Paul !! Great to hear from you Frank, thanks for the comment :)