2009 Watchphrase: Be a Teacher and a Reacher

As I download some very cool audio books onto my itouch, I want to share with you the core of who I want to be as a teacher this year.

Yes, I have goals, but often, a thought or “mantra” if you will, often helps me focus on who I want to be.  I can align my thoughts and actions with this thought.

This year I want to be “a Teacher who is a Reacher”
Yes, the word reacher has multiple meanings for me. 

To me, a reacher is embodied in the story of John Baker, an Olympic Hopeful of 1972 and a teacher – In 1971, 520 families voted whether to rename their elementary school after him —

“there were 520 votes for, none against.” (p 10)  (from one of my favorite books Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life)

and Aspen School in Albuquerque New Mexico officially became “John Baker Elementary School.”

To best read his story, read the 1975 Reader's Digest Story entitled John Baker's Last Race.  It is a great one to share with all teachers.

Here's my summary of John Baker

Who Was John Baker?

Against all odds, John Baker ran.  His high school coach only let him on the team after John convinced the coach that he would convince his athletic best friend,  John Haaland to run.  What happened next suprised everyone — John Baker went on to run his first 1.7 mile cross country meet and so many after that, earning the name “Upset John” Baker.

The first race had a turning point – the “other side of the hill” this is what the article says about the “other side of the hill”

What had happened on the far side of that hill?  Baker later explained.  Halfway through the race, running well back of the leaders, he had asked himself a question: am I doing my best?  He didn’t know.  Fixing his eye on the back of the runner immediately in front of him, he closed his mind to all else. Only one thing mattered: catch and pass that runner, and then go after the next one.  An unknown reserve of energy surged through his body.  “It was almost hypnotic,” Baker recalled.  One by one he passed the other runners.  Ignoring the fatigue that tore at his muscles, he maintained his furious pace until he crossed the finish line and collapsed in exhaustion.”

John focused on reaching the next person and set a meet record of 8:03.5.  He ran in college in 1962 for the University of New Mexico still known as “upset John”  – every morning at dawn, he ran — 25 miles a day — he ran.

Upon graduating from college, the world was open to John, but he wanted to work with children.  He also dreamed of the Olympics and so pursued a career that would let him do both – he became a coach at Aspen Elementary School in Albuquerque.

This, to me, is where he became a superstar.  His one requirement of children:  “do your very best.”  He loved his students. 

This fairness, plus an obviously sincere concern for his student’s welfare, triggered a powerful response.  Youthful grievances were brought first to Coach Baker.  Real or fancied, each was treated as if at the moment it was the most important matter in the world. And the word spread: “Coach cares.”” (p6)

 But then, just before his twenty fifth birthday, John found out that he had testicular cancer that had already spread horribly and the doctor said John had six months to live.  John was despondent and went on a drive in the mountains.  He returned hours later with his smile back, and his amazing positive attitude.  What happened?

This was another “other side of the hill” experience for John and a turning point in the lives of many, although John could not know that:

     He had driven to Sandia Crest, the majestic two-mile-high mountain peak that dominates Albuquerque’s eastern skyline.  Seated in his car near the edge of the precipice, he thought of the extended agony his condition would cause his family.  He could end that agony, and his own, in an instant.  With a silent prayer, he revved the engine and reached for the emergency brake.  Suddenly a vision flashed before his eyes: the faces of the children at Aspen Elementary – the children he had taught to do their best despite the odds. What sort of legacy would his suicide be for them?  Shamed to the depths of his soul, he switched off the ignition, slumped in the seat and wept.  After a while he realized that his fears were stilled, that he was at peace.  “Whatever time I have left,” he told himself, “I’m dedicating to the kids.””

He came back.  Not only did he work with the students at his school – he threw himself into sports for the handicapped.  Everyone had a job, one kid might be “Coach's Time Keeper” or “Chief Equipment Supervisor” but EVERY kid had a job and wore official Aspen Jerseys and eligible to win a coveted Coach Baker ribbon for trying hard.  (He made the ribbons at night using his own money.)

I particularly love this quote from a mother who wrote a letter to Coach Baker's parents:

“My son was a morning monster.  Getting him up and fed, and out the door was hardly bearable.  Now he can't wait for school.  He's the Chief Infield Raker.” (p 7)

John continued and refused painkilling injections of any kind although the cancer had spread to his neck and brain — ignoring it like the fatigue had learned to ignore in races.  Why?

“I want to work with the kids as long as I'm able,” John told his doctor.  “The injections will dull my responsiveness.” (p8)

The doctor called John one of the most “unselfish people he had ever known.”

In 1970, Baker coached a small track club for girls – the Duke City Dashers.  His first day of practice for the Albuquerque track club open to girls elementary to high school he brought a small shoebox.  As the girls gathered around, he opened the box to reveal two shiny gold copys and held the award “for the girl, who though never a winner, wouldn't quit.”  Dasher gave these awards any time a girl deserved it over the next months.

Where did Dasher get these cups?  His family later discovered that the trophies were his… he was carefully using a metal scrubber to burnish off his own name.  John fought the increasing nausea and decreasing stamina often coaching while sitting on a hill – YELLING out his encouragement.

This girls team was invited to the national championships in St. Louis.  John wanted to live long enough to make it- it was his last goal.

He didn't make it.

On October 28, at the Aspen school he loved, he clutched his abdomen and fell to the ground with a ruptured tumor in his abdomen.  John refused to go to the hospital and returned to school one last day,

“so the kids would remember him walking tall, not helplessly lying in the dirt.”

The second time he collapsed at home, an ambulance picked him up for his last ride to the hospital and he asked his Mom to make sure the ambulance lights were flashing:

“So he could leave the neighborhood in style.”

He died on Thanksgiving Day in 1970.  Two days later, his team, full of Coach Baker earned and inspired trophies back home on their shelves, won the AAU championship.  

That my friends is the life of a reacher.  A teacher who was a reacher. 

The Model of a Teacher Reacher
He modeled in his life and his death the habits and things he wanted kids to learn so they could live a good life.  He did whatever it took to reach the students, reach the next goal, reach the next milestone. 

So, now it is officially 2009, and most of us are sitting at home probably having an “other side of the hill” moment.

Reaching the Goal
It may be that we are struggling with a goal and feel behind – we feel it is hopeless and it can never be accomplished.  The question is, have you given your best?  Do you honestly know what your total 100% best feels like?  Have you ever given everything you have to that goal and collapsed at the end of the day from the exertion?

Have you done extra things at home to bring pride and excitement to the lives of your students?  Have you done special, unique things to represent the special, unique abilities of your students?  It isn't about going the extra mile – it is about running the mile you've gotta run with everything you've got.

Reaching Through Tough Circumstances
You may be reaching ahead with an unknown future.  With Mom's cancern experience this year, this is one of the toughest.  When the future looks hopeless how do we still live a good, well-lived life?  How do we finish well?

As I age, sometimes I ask, “is this all there is? Am I just going to get tireder and tired-er?  What on earth is it all about?”

We all have tough circumstances.  I heard someone once say – “we're all either coming out of a storm or going into one.”  And if we take this perspective, we could get downright depressed.

But, John sat there in his “other side of the hill” moment and as he gunned the gas he said to himself “what does this teach these kids about doing their best despite the odds?”

So, we have to ask ourselves, teachers.

How does how we face the problems of our life tell the children we teach.

We can talk all day long but how we live is what we believe.

Words are cheap – and people are sick of them.  We want to see good people live good lives and just do what they say and say what they do.  This kind of character is rare.

There is another story of a teacher who was a reacher that fits this. 

John Kord Lagemann writes:

“A young sociology professor sent his class out to a Baltimore slum to interview 200 boys and predict their chances for the future.  The sudents… predicted about 90% of the boys they interviewed would spend some time in prison.

Twenty five years later, the same professor assigned another class to go back and find out how the predictions turned out.  Of the 190 of the original boys located, only four had ever been to jail.

Why had the prediction been so wrong?  More than 100 of the men remembered one high-school teacher, Miss O'Rourke, as having been an inspiration in their lives.  After a long search, Shelia O'Rourke, more than seventy years old , was found. But when asked to explain her influence over her former students, she was puzzled.  ‘All I can say,' she finally decided, ‘is that I loved every one of them.”  p. 57 Everyday Greatness

Miss O'Rourke was a reacher.

In this day of tests and measurements, God forbid we forget the main thing.  Teachers who love their students, who customize their environment to help every child find a place they can contribute and succeed.  Teachers who help their kids feel like winners because they do good HONEST work – (I'm not for telling kids they are great no matter what they do – kids see through it as a sham.) 

Honestly, we're looking at teachers who get a great one year boost in test scores – how about studying teachers who over the course of their lives have a LONG TERM impact.  These are the teachers we should be studying.  They are often quiet, not glitzy, but very determined.

Teaching kids to do their 100% best.  Loving the students.  Thinking through their own lives and what they say about how to live life.  That is what we need in education.

I want to be a teacher reacher

So, this comes to my thinking about what I want to BE in 2009.

I want to do a better job of loving my students.  Of coming up with creative ways to help them succeed.  Of having a good attitude when the tough things in life come. 

It isn't just about academic excellence, although that is important – it is so much more.  It isn't just about reaching around the world, either, although that is part of it.

It is about reaching our goals, reaching our students, and reaching out to what lies ahead with optimism and reaching across the cultural and national boundaries that separate us and the desire to give our 100% best to every worthy task to which we have put our hands.

It is about taking our own glory, burnishing our names off of it, and using it to help others and encourage them.  Our schools are full of these types of people… these are the greatest teachers we all know.

And that, my friends, is a legacy. 

Teaching is the most noble calling on earth – LIVE LIKE IT!

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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ms-teacher January 2, 2009 - 7:13 pm

This is a wonderful. I’m including this post in my next Teacher Tip Tuesday.

JaniceW January 2, 2009 - 8:33 pm

I want to be a teacher reacher too!!
I am sure that I am, and I am sure that I could be better. As I move to a new school for the new school year, I am going to keep this in my thoughts. ¨Be a teacher reacher” will be on the front of my planning book. Over my years of teaching I have found small quotes like this help me get through the hard bits.
Have a good 2009 everyone.

Vicki A. Davis January 2, 2009 - 10:44 pm

@ms-teacher – Thank you – hope it helps others. It was good self-therapy and clarification of my own thoughts on what it means.

@JaniceW – I tool function around words — a statement – so much better than the 5000 goals I often give myself!

Julie Hathaway January 9, 2009 - 4:48 am

I was left completely and totally speechless at your depth of feeling, understanding, and passion for teaching. Reading this brought me to tears. To foten we, as teachers get bogged down and discouraged with all that is expected of us, and we lose sight of what it means to teach. Thank you for reminding me on a night when I was having difficulty remembering!

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