5 Lessons I Learned As a Student

Sometimes I look back at my days in school, and I am amazed that I ended up becoming a teacher and principal.
During eighth grade, my Language Arts teacher, Ms. Owen, told me she wanted to make a deal with me. She said that she would buy me my favorite candy bar at the end of the school year if I stayed out of trouble till then.

I thought this sounded like a pretty fair deal, and I made good progress until late into the year.

That spring, after basketball season had ended, all athletes were placed in afternoon “Enrichment” classes instead of gym class. Our Enrichment teacher, Mr. Ray, was an older man who would take attendance, tell us to work on our homework, open his newspaper and fall asleep.

One day, I had had enough of sitting around so I persuaded a few of my friends to leave. We slipped into the hallway, passed the library and wandered into the back lot of the school where teachers parked their cars.

Having a new taste of freedom, we decided it only appropriate to decorate Mr. Ray’s car with some posters we took from the library the windows.

About this time, another boy stepped out on the back steps and called my name. He was holding a note in his hand and said Mr. Cate, the principal, was looking for me.

As I walked the long hallway to his office, I wondered why the note was only for me. Somehow he must have known I had led the exit party.

After standing outside his door for a few moments, I entered and slid into the wooden chair in front Mr. Cate. He was a stocky man, balding and probably in his mid-30’s. I thought that made him old.

The office was tiny with barely room for his own desk and chair.

To my right and his left was a tiny square door that had been cut into the wall at eye-level. I had seen it before on other visits, and it opened into the adjoining room where he could pass messages to the teacher there.

“William,” he began. “I called you in here to talk about this.”

He slid a familiar looking can of smokeless tobacco across his desk top.

The next few minutes were an exchange of interrogation and confession:

“Have you ever seen this before?” he began.

“Yes, sir, some of us boys shared that at our last field day.”

“This was found in your locker. Can you explain?”

“No, sir, you’d have to ask Jeff, my locker buddy, because I never saw it in my locker before.”

“Well, I’ve already checked with him, and we know it’s not his.”

Within the next few minutes I had confessed to having chewed it during field day activity the week before when it was offered from another boy. But I was adamant it wasn’t mine or in my locker, and I was being honest.

At the same time, I began hearing a strange noise coming from the little door in the wall next to me. It dawned on me that it was muffled laughter. The little door swung open, and peering through it was my English teacher, Ms. Owen.

She and Mr. Cate both laughed so hard, I finally decided to join in.

“You, what?!” I said. “I can’t believe it. Guess I don’t get that candy bar, do I?”

After more laughter about how Ms. Owen had set me up, and I had told on myself for something they didn’t know about, I was sent with a pass back to class.

When I arrived, my friends who had returned unnoticed by the sleepy Mr. Ray were sitting quietly at their desks working on homework.

“What happened?” one of them asked as I found my seat.

“I’m not sure,” I explained. “All I know is that none of us is in trouble.” But I should have been, I thought.

5 Take-Aways
For my K-8 years, I attended a small, rural school in West Tennessee that was far from perfect. And I was a far-from-perfect student.

But when I look back at my experience there, I also realize what a unique a relationship I had with some of my teachers and principal. This isolated incident was also surrounded by others that helped shape the future choices I would make in school and life:

1. They set the rules and showed they cared about me.
Thankfully, I was only in Mr. Cate’s office a handful of times during my years there. Even when I received lectures or swats (corporeal punishment was still allowed then), I always knew he cared about me as a person. Ms. Owen was the kind of teacher who was rigorous and caring enough that students didn’t want to disappoint her.

2. They encouraged me to excel.
Ms. Owen was the one who encouraged me to think about taking Honors English classes in high school. I didn’t think I had the ability to do so until she told me. Little did I know I would become a Language Arts teacher someday.

3. They treated me with dignity, like a small adult.
They talked to me like I was important to them by building my self-confidence and treating me as if I had value, self-worth, and respect. Discipline and dignity are not contradictions.

4. They were willing to laugh with me.
A sense of humor goes a long way in helping others connect with you as a person. You are always more willing to learn from someone whom you respect and admire as a person.

5. They believed I would someday be successful.
This is one of the intangible elements I can’t follow-up with a concrete example. I could just tell by their tone of voice or their encouraging words about my potential future, that I was believed in.

Years after I had become an administrator, I ran into my old principal, Mr. Cate. He didn’t seem a bit surprised that I had followed a path into teaching and school leadership.

I have had many other great teachers along the way, but I am glad for the ones who set guidelines, showed they cared, treated me with dignity, had a sense of humor, and believed each student had potential.

Our calling is to believe the same about our students.

Now It’s Your Turn
What are some lessons you learned as a student that are helping you now as an educator or as an adult?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker