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The Best Teachers See the Best in Their Students

02/05/2014 02:33 EST | Updated 04/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week here on P.E.I. which has given me pause to reflect on what qualities make great teachers. And with all the wonderful teacher stories having gone viral lately, along with my own understandings on this topic which I wrote about here, I've come to realize that teaching is a calling of profound importance. Not to be undermined. And those teachers who are among the best share something in common- a quality, if you will. A simple quality, yet so profound. It's their ability to see their students- that makes the difference.

It's that defining quality that sets the best apart.

It was fall of my Grade 12 year, the year I painfully remember as "The Move." My father having been relocated, his job terminated abruptly, packed up our meagre family possessions and moved his wife and four children minus one child over the course of a weekend.

Sometimes it takes a weekend to unravel a family. And at other times, it just takes a moment.

I alone remained behind, determined that I wouldn't be leaving all I had known and loved. Sixteen is a brazen age. It's old enough to know that one couldn't leave behind their childhood memories, their home and their life. It's old enough to stay behind. But it's not quite old enough to know exactly how to pull the whole thing off, financially and otherwise.

My parents in their wisdom allowed me the choice to remain behind so long as I chose to live with a family friend, someone they trusted. But I was on my own when it came to paying rent and looking after essentials. I agreed to their terms and so it was decided: I would stay. But the day they pulled out from the driveway of our first family home, moving van loaded up with my childhood toys, my bed and dresser -- van full to the brim with my four younger siblings and weeping mother -- that is a day that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

I lasted until the following Monday evening when I finally caved, coming to my senses as well as to the stark realization that I needed my family. I needed to go home, whatever that word meant now. There was a scramble -- a gathering of my own small assemblage of life possessions and a drive from one province to another. Allowing me to find a way to reunite with my parents and siblings a few days later, as bittersweet as that reunion might have felt in those moments.

That move crushed me, left me feeling as if the bottom had fallen out from my world. And it left me to cope with the difficult task of starting over, starting fresh, at a time in one's life when they should be celebrating the finish line.

I was enrolled in a brand new school, close to our new home and tucked away in between a grove of woods on one side and fields on the other. Plunked into a sea of faces where no one knew my name, let alone saw me for the person I had been. I was lonely. A strange place to find yourself when you are 16, in love and at what you think at the time is the pinnacle of your school career.

Starting over -- for me, it was humbling. Perhaps what I needed, although I wouldn't have thought so then. I went from knowing everyone to knowing no one. From being part of a crowd to feeling outside the crowd. I went from having a presence to feeling invisible. And at the time, I would have readily admitted it was my worst 16-year-old nightmare come true.

Somehow I managed to pull things together enough to make it work. I made a few friends, did well in my courses and tried to keep up on the news from my former school and friendship circle, along with the places and people I identified with in my heart as truly home.

There were a few classes in the new school that I did enjoy, especially one taught by a Mr. T. Funny, enthusiastic and earnest, he infused life into the classroom with his stories, his wealth of knowledge and his love of all things chemistry. I can't remember at what point in the semester he called me down to his classroom for a chat, but I will never forget the care and concern in his voice.

Somehow, he had seen me there in the back row of his classroom, hiding underneath a veil of resentment, fear and insecurity, angry that my life had been interrupted. Bitter. And in spite of it all, he made a point of looking past the image so as to connect with me. Letting me know that I had potential -- that he saw the best in me -- at a time in my life when I couldn't see the best in my circumstances.

Mr. T was unforgettable. Was it the chemistry lessons he delivered? The curriculum outcomes he covered? Was it his vast knowledge and seemingly infinite understanding that I remember? What was it exactly that forever etched his impression on my memory?

What I remember now as a teacher myself was his smile. His laughter. And I remember that he saw me.

There are times in our service as teachers when we set aside the habitual act of doing for the sacred work of being. Seeing our world through the eyes of another. Seeing so as to understand and feel. When lessons and lectures, activities and testing are momentarily shelved, playing second fiddle to the work of care and compassion. So that we as teachers can engage in the art of seeing our students for the potential and possibility they truly are. A time when caring becomes the curriculum and actual lived experience is the lesson. Those are times when we see that our noble profession is far more than mere passing on of knowledge. A routine work of filling empty vessels.

Our vision is our students.

Because it's really about seeing through new eyes. Seeing students as people. As possibility. As ability. As potential. As bringing their best. As unique minds, souls and bodies. For when we see them as promise, we allow for the possibility that they will also see within themselves that promise too. We make room for the possibility that our gentle reminders will light a fire within so that our students might live their own lives to the greatest of their capability.

Those times in our day when we set aside the academic outcomes for greater the sake of the child, they are precious. They are little moments of great significance which serve to remind us as teachers of the greatest of life's lessons. That it is the care we infuse into our work and how we see the possibilities that makes all the difference.

It's seeing the promise that matters most.

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