By Peggy Wuenstel
As a working mom in the early 90’s I usually managed to stay up late enough on a Saturday night to catch the musings of Stuart Smalley as played by Minnesota Senator Al Franken. As he gazed into a cheval mirror, his daily affirmations famously included the phrase, “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you”. His reinvention from comedy on Saturday Night Live to the unfortunate comedy on the floor of the U.S. Senate inspires me for the future. What you have been is not all that you can be. Just because something is ending in one incarnation does not mean that it is over forever and for all locations. One of the things that I know I will miss is the regular affirmations that I have received as a teacher over the course of my career. But even more importantly, I will miss the opportunity to offer these encouragements to others.
This “cheerleader” role is one of the best for teachers to take on, and the one in which impact can often be most directly observed. The child who’ll try a little harder, the learner who can celebrate what he has accomplished while reaching for more, is often the result of our explicit and implied encouragement. There has been a lot of recent research about the value of relationship between educator and learner in increasing positive educational outcomes. Our district initiative to become more trauma informed in our teaching practice requires that we consider the role of our positive input for those students who receive little of this in their home environments. It often comes down to this, students work harder for people they like. When they matter to us, their work tends to matter more to them.
One of the most flagrant errors made in the ongoing debate about teacher compensation, union bargaining rights, and the cost of teacher salaries and benefits was that those bottom line things were the most important to Wisconsin teachers. For most of my colleagues, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. If we wanted to make more money, there were other options. The other affirmations were far more important. The biggest loss for me personally has been the loss of the other affirmations that used to be part of a teaching career. The thanks of a community for your service to children, the respect of parents who acknowledge how well you know their children, the love from our students and their willingness to try again. The last one remains in abundance, the first two, not so much, and that makes it far easier for veteran teachers to walk away from the classroom than in years past.
I chose to be a teacher because of the opportunities it offered to be of service. My faith life requires that I find work to do on this earth to make the world a better place. I have always felt fortunate that I could do that without taking off my teacher hat. We can always do more than the job requires, go beyond the expectations, love a little more, provide what is needed, and advocate for what we cannot personally offer. Now we must often do this without discussing it in the general public because of the preconceived ideas and misconceptions that the public has about the kinds of affirmations that teachers need.
I was invited to blog in this forum as a result of winning a teaching award back in 2010. It is telling that the reason this occurred is paradoxically because I was not unique that year. Three of the four honorees that year had Marquette ties. (Please follow Claudia Felske a fellow Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and fellow blogger). One of my overriding emotions about this process and the opportunities that have been subsequently afforded to me is the wish that many other deserving teachers could receive that same type of affirmation. I had never really been able to characterize my feelings about this until I read TV producer Shonda Rimes talk about “award as encouragement instead of as accomplishment” in her book Year of Yes. Awards are not really about what you have already done, they are about what you still have the power to do. They are not an ending, but a beginning. Hopefully we can engage students in their own learning to create that same kind of forward momentum.
I have warned my husband that in retirement he is going to have to take up the slack in my affirmation mirror. I have been blessed to work in a place that has provided me with the kind of positive reinforcement that makes coming to work a joy. Students, coworkers and parents have always been quick to offer smiles, compliments and encouragement. I can honestly say that I have laughed aloud nearly every day of my 15 year tenure here. Coworkers have been encouraging, parents grateful and students genuinely loving. I have rarely had to look into a mirror to find affirmation. I was able to look into their eyes and find it there.