What Joeleen Taught Me

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This school year marks my tenth year as a teacher, my fourth at Spring Valley High School. This is the longest I’ve ever worked at one place. I usually work in threes: a journalist (2005-2008), a teacher at Carolina Forest High School (2008-2011); and a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (2011-2014)—with a one year stint at Coastal Carolina University before coming to SVHS.

I’ve taught elementary school-aged children poetry with The Watering Hole Poetry Organization; I’ve taught adults composition at the Columbia campus of Virginia College; I’ve taught incarcerated men creative writing at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville.

Teaching is my heart work, and I’ve been teaching in some capacity for the past ten years.

Some say that the public school system is broken. That maybe true. The truth is that our young people who show up every morning to that system need good people to not only teach them, but to care about them as well. I’m blessed to be in that number.

As we get closer and closer to the first day of school, I find myself anxiously anticipating what I believe will be a good school year. I am also reminded of a lesson I learned in college. This lesson was not in a classroom, but on a basketball court.

My basketball coach at Agnes Scott College was Joeleen Akin. She was—and probably still is—a follower of Coach John Wooden. One of his tenants she preached to us was the cornerstones of the Pyramid of Success: Enthusiasm and Industriousness: Have fun and work hard.

This lesson has never left me and continues to guide me in my personal and professional endeavors. Industriousness and enthusiasm can be the cornerstone of any classroom, team, workplace, or organization.

Enthusiasm

Be excited about your work. This is not a “fake ‘til you make it” sort of enthusiasm or the type where you have to jump up and down and flap your arms. This enthusiasm goes beyond the actual, physical work you are doing. This enthusiasm is having energy with the people who are at the center of your work.

If I’m monotone, dragging, and uninterested everyday, my students will sense that and feed on that energy. The same goes for any work we do. What type of energy do we bring into a room when we walk into it?

We all have bad days—those low energy days when it doesn’t matter how much coffee we drink. However, if our bad days outweigh our good days, we need to listen to that and adjust accordingly.

Industriousness

I won’t make more money for working harder than the teacher who is printing out worksheets for students. However, my motivation to work hard in my profession is not motivated by money, but by my desire for my students to value the power of language in this present and in our future.

This year my curriculum is undergoing a paradigm shift. I am modeling my curriculum after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. This new model will include more writing conferences and adding reading conferences. It will be a mess and messy, but that’s life. As I told a colleague recently, “It’s not about perfection; it’s about progress and process.” I’m willing to put in the work because I know my students will be better for it.

Industriousness and enthusiasm are a team. One compliments the other. I have a copy of the Pyramid of Success in my classroom that I look at often. I’ve never used it in my classroom with my students, but I think I will this year as a way for us to build community and share a common vision. That’s ultimately what Coach wanted us to do: Unite over a set of common principles.

Coach Akin was also our Director of Athletics, and she would eventually be promoted to Dean of Students. She is now Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator at Georgia Tech. I’m sure the cornerstones held her up throughout her career, however subliminally.

Those same cornerstones will help me through this coming school year.

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