It was 1994. I was a senior at UC Davis, finishing my last class for my minor (Spanish), and a word came up that no one was quite sure how to translate from the English. This, mind you, was before the Internet existed in a meaningful way, so there was no cell phone to whip out and no search engines to consult. Even my professor didn’t know how to say it — so, in good teacher fashion, he asked the class.
“Perseguida,” said one of my classmates.
“Perseguida…doesn’t sound good,” said my professor. (Eventually we found out that the translation was “búsqueda.”)
I’m only bringing this little anecdote up because the word we were looking for all those years ago in a university classroom is my word for 2019. It is pursuit.
Pursuit is defined as “following someone or something.” I chose it this year as a logical counterpart to last year’s word — “door-opener.” (Okay, that’s two words. Cope.) In the last 12 months, what I have discovered is that kids need to be able to succeed in their own ways. They need a chance to communicate what they are good at, what they are curious about, and what they love spending their time doing. And their teachers have to listen to what they have to say.
Then, we as teachers have to create opportunities for students to show their prowess in the ways they care about, not in the ways that someone else prescribes for them — and probably not the ways we ourselves cared about when we were in school. As a pertinent example: I personally camped out in the library looking through old books and magazines as an undergraduate; most of my students would find that prospect only slightly less attractive than a root canal without anesthetic.
We have to, in short, open doors for the students. Their own personal doors, ones that perhaps no one at a school has ever offered to them.
But listening isn’t enough. Opening doors isn’t enough.
I know, I’m stretching this metaphor to a metafive, but once the kids have gone through those doors, we have to follow them. We have to guide them through the rooms and pathways they’ve chosen. We have to pursue them.
What does that mean for an overworked teacher — to pursue their students?
It means being willing to remind students what their part is in the learning process as many times as it takes, without doing their part for them.
It means giving them the information they need to do well, without squeezing out their ability to imagine and to solve problems.
It means accepting them for who they are and where they are, without letting them stay there or settling for just getting by.
It means knowing the difference between an excuse and a real reason for poor performance, without letting students skate by when you know they could be doing better.
It means letting them know you want to know them beyond their name and their GPA, without prying into things they really don’t want to share.
It means running with them. Not literally, unless you’re a PE coach. Not behind them, in an attempt to nag them into being compliant. Not ahead of them, giving them less and less incentive to even try. (In a different blog post, I’ll explore the fatality of giving zeros as grades, because they wreck the motivation of those who receive them.) No, you are by their side while they run.
You’re still pursuing excellence in teaching, right? You still have more to learn about education, don’t you? You don’t know everything about your subject matter that there is to know, do you?
Don’t your students deserve to know that you are just as vulnerable and afraid as they are? Do you really want to project the image of the flawless, totally composed, completely in control teacher? Do you think they can relate to that utterly unachievable and unrealistic icon?
Have I inserted enough rhetoric in those last two paragraphs?
The point is, you’re still pursuing knowledge. You’re still learning. Maybe different subjects, maybe at a later age, maybe at a different pace. But you are. Just like they are. Just like I am.
I know for me, the pursuit will be of more development as a teacher, more success for my students, and more profound relationships with the kids I teach and the people I work with. Anything less than that would be a pursuit that would be best described as…well…trivial.
(Had to end with a play on words.)