I was like most kids. The only adults I repeatedly saw at work were my teachers.
Both of my parents were hard workers and proud of what they did. Nonetheless, I had no opportunity to watch them on the job, nor did I understand in any hands-on way what it meant to work as an adult. I was like most kids in that way, I suspect. The only adults I repeatedly saw at work were my teachers.
It occurs to me that one way teachers can prepare young people for the world of work is by making sure that as they watch us work, we model the traits, attitudes, and habits of productive, fulfilled, and successful people in any job. We also have many chances to talk with students about what it means to do work you can be proud of and joyful about—and to show them we believe they can work like that, too.
Living Out "Making a Difference"
I was a frequent observer in an urban school a few years back. The students typically came from complicated and often challenging homes. Most of their parents were unemployed or working on the fringes of hope. One day as a 3rd grade teacher explained an assignment, a little girl raised her hand. She looked wistful as the teacher acknowledged her. "Your dress is really pretty," the child said.
The comment was, by standard measure, inappropriate. It had nothing to do with what the teacher had been saying, and this teacher had little regard for off-task behavior. Nonetheless, she didn't give a hint of displeasure as she answered. "You know," she began, "I'm glad you said that. It gives me a chance to tell you something important." She continued,
When I was your age, my family was quite poor. I didn't have any nice clothes. I made up my mind then that I was going to work hard to learn in school so that I could get a job that would let me afford some good clothes. Teaching was the answer for me. I love what I do because I get to work with you. Every day when I get up, I put on something nice because it's a way to say to my students that you are important to me and the work I do with you is important to me.
Then she went back to the explanation she'd been giving.
As I watched that teacher with her students over the next few months, I came to understand that she was preparing them for life as productive, contributing adults in a variety of interconnected ways. Just as with the dress comment, she never missed an opportunity to help them imagine and be ready for a good future in which they could use their distinctive skills. Here are some ways in which she did so.
- She respected her students. She saw them as having great capacity to succeed. She invested her time and energy in them. She was unfailingly respectful in her conversations with them and accepted only respectful interactions from them. For some young people, the respect of a teacher is a precursor for self-respect. For all young people, the respect of a teacher enhances their sense of worth.
- She started with the assumption that they were smart. This teacher set very high achievement standards for her learners; her standards of success were the same as those for the best students in the state. She made sure the students knew the criteria for success, and she gave them consistent and focused feedback. Almost without exception, they grew into what she saw in them.
- She expected them to work hard—no exceptions. "You never know how much you can accomplish until you give it all you've got," she often told the students. Or she'd reflect, "I'm on the job here, so I work as hard as I can to do the job well. Remember you're on the job, too." Or she'd remind students, "Your work is like a mirror. People see you in it. Be sure you like what they'll see."
- She taught them to work smart. She read them stories about famous people who persisted in the face of difficulty, sought mentors, were true to their word, insisted on accuracy, thought creatively, used humor to their advantage, and maintained a hunger to learn. Whenever she saw a student apply one of these success-inducing habits, she would point it out. She taught students to do the same for one another and for themselves.
- She talked about stepping stones to the future. She might say, "Now if you want to be an engineer, you'll need to go to college for at least four years. There are scholarships that can help with the bills. Colleges have people who can tell you about those." Or, "If you want to have your own business, it can still be smart to work for someone else first. Pick the right person, and they'll show you how to succeed."
The 8-year-olds in this class weren't just marking time or trying to pass a test. They were on the way to making a difference in the world. They knew the value of that. They saw it lived out in front of them every day in their classroom. Their teacher taught them about math, science, literature, and social studies. She also taught them about what it means to build a contributing life—and how to own that opportunity.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author, with Marcia B. Imbeau, of Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2010).
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