I fondly remember when I was first asked to consider what my future career path might be. Mrs. Williams, my kindergarten teacher, asked the class to draw a picture that articulated what we wanted to be when we grew up. I immediately knew exactly what I was going to draw. To this day I still remember the image I created of a farmer tending to his crops. This was a natural career choice for me as a six-year-old having grown up in a rural area of northwestern NJ with a farm right across from our house. I had no idea how to farm, but being outside the rest of my life was good enough for me.
As I aged, the thought of becoming a farmer faded and I began to focus more on careers in the biological sciences. Growing up surrounded by nature and spending each summer at the Jersey Shore helped to kindle and sustain an interest in this area. I never gave much thought, nor did either of my brothers, about becoming an educator. Quite honestly, I told myself and my parents that I would never become an educator. My response might have stemmed from the fact that I really didn’t understand what they did each day and the impact they were having on kids. All I knew with a great deal of certainty was that a career in education was not in the cards.
Inspiration Close to Home Changed All That
My mom, after taking many years off to take care of us, eventually became an elementary teacher who had a celebrated career. I say ‘celebrated’ because at her retirement dinner I was able to witness firsthand the impact she had on students and colleagues alike. Their stories of her passion and dedication for helping kids learn made me so proud. My father was a successful school administrator for what seemed like forever. He held many positions, but what amazes me most is the fact that he was an elementary principal at the same school for close to 30 years. When he retired they gave him a key to the city. I don’t know if you can be more successful than that.
I never knew the impact my parents had as educators until after I myself became one. Hearing story after story about their work as their careers ended taught me that sometimes the ultimate reward for an educator comes years after we have had direct impact with kids or adults.
Herein lies the motivation behind this post. I recently received a text message from a former student and athlete of mine. It started off like this:
"Coach Sheninger, is this still your number?"
My response was a simple ‘yep.’
He then went on to text me the following:
"Well hey, it’s Spenser Brenn just in case you lost my number. Sorry if it’s super early. As sappy as this is going to sound…."
I really was not prepared for what followed next, but I can tell you that his words below touched my heart and soul.
"I was just working out with my athletes and kids yesterday and it reminded me of when I was in high school. You let me work out with you and would push me in the weight room, classroom, and on the football field. I have always been asked, ‘why did you want to become a teacher and coach? To be honest, I wasn't sure of that answer until I had this moment yesterday when I realized that those seemingly trivial moments of the two of us working out at lunch or study hall were more impactful than most other moments during high school for me. You were tough on me (a pain in the butt, or at least in the eyes of a stupid high school kid), deservingly so, considering I was a pain right back to you. However, you taking me under your wing and motivating, mentoring, and challenging me (whether you knew it or not) meant and still means more to me than you probably know, or more than I knew until yesterday. So I just wanted to reach out and say this—a small gesture like working out with a pain in the butt kid meant the world to him. It showed that you cared, something he, and all people, needed at that time. Thank you. I now know why I became a teacher, a coach, and a mentor to the youth."
It goes without saying that I was totally humbled by Spencer’s message. As educators we have all chosen a profession that would not lead to riches in a financial sense. We chose to become educators so that we not only could help kids learn, but hopefully could impact them well beyond just grades and achievement. Education is a calling. It is a calling to make a difference. That’s what educators do on a day-to-day basis. Never forget that your work matters and that each day you get up in front of a class, help lead a building, or collaborate with others to run a district you have an opportunity to positively impact kids. This also applies to your work with adult learners.
Below is the response I sent to Spencer.
“Well you just made my day, well, week actually (maybe the entire summer). Life is so much more than what we are made to think is important. Everything comes down to relationships built on trust, empathy, compassion, understanding, and honesty. I really never knew until later in my education career that one of the most important things we can do is to show kids we care. It's not until much later in life that we learn of the impact we have on our students. You will one day be in the same position as me, a proud person humbled by the feedback that you receive knowing that you positively influenced others. Thank you so much for taking the time to send that text. It meant more than you will ever know.”
Celebrate Your Own Impact
Why did you become an educator? Who were the people and what were the experiences in your life that led you to your current role? In my new role, I still see myself (and other amazing speakers and presenters) as an educator. Each day is still a calling to try to make a difference. Whether or not I make a real difference is in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, I am driven by the same passion I had as a teacher and principal to help others see the greatness that is within all of us.
Thank you to every educator out there for the work that you do.
I invite you to join me and other education leaders in Orlando for ICLE’s 26th annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27, 2018, where participants will discuss effective education strategies and develop their own action plans for making positive impacts in the classroom.
This post originally appeared on Eric Sheninger’s blog, A Principal’s Reflections.