Saturday, August 25, 2007

Simple Acts, Beautiful Results

Bermuda is beautiful. I’ve had the pleasure of working here with the good folks from Bermuda College for the last few days. The people, their passion, their college, their focus on students, and so much more—it is all a thing of beauty. And their view of the ocean isn’t bad either!

However, the most beautiful moment happened after one of our sessions. We were diving in to the findings of the Practical Magic: On the Front Lines of Teaching Excellence study. We explored how the faculty from this study—all of whom had received awards for excellence in teaching and reaching students—seemed powerfully passionate about connecting with students, catalyzing their success, and inspiring them to fall in love with learning. Moreover, they dared to be different as they made a difference—dared to be “goofy” as one faculty member put it. They put their egos on the line, because it wasn’t about them. Their lives were not about their prestige; they were instead committed to seeing their students succeed. We talked about the learning theory you can draw Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships; and how after reading this work and better understanding the power of teachers, coaches, parents, and leaders to literally shape the brains and patterns of thinking of those in their charge, it is impossible not to take the most simple acts seriously.

After the session, one of the faculty members came to the front of the room while I was closing down my computer. She wanted to share her story personally. She taught math at Bermuda College and deeply resonated with the section of the study that talked about daring transformative teachers and their often powerful but simple words and deeds.

She, like many Bermudian students, had left the island to complete her bachelors. Upon entering her large US University, she realized that this was going to be a very different experience. The institution was large, impersonal, and loaded with bureaucracy. Put simply, and in her words, she was scared. However, one of her faculty members dared to stand out. He got to know his students, understand their backgrounds, and seemed to really care about their success—and not just in math. He was the opposite of the sloppy Darwinian, “let them sink or swim,” faculty that made students feel like they were a nuisance. He was her island in that lonely university sea.

At the end of the semester all of the students taking calculus—from a wide variety of teachers—were brought together in a huge hall to take the end-of-course exam. She was worried enough about the test, but now she was sitting in a gigantic, sterile room with what seemed like a thousand students. To her, they all looked ready. She was terrified. Her heart rate soared, she began to sweat, and her mind seemed to be locking up. She couldn’t remember the simplest of things she knew would be on the test. She began looking for a way out.

But just as this panic was cresting and she was preparing to crash to shore, she heard a voice. It was her teacher. It was five minutes before the test was to begin, and he was making his way through the sea of students to personally encourage his class. He knew all of his students’ names and faces and sought them out one by one. The other students were looking at him like he was crazy. The proctors were not pleased. He didn’t care.

He found her in the middle of that sea, she said. “Then he put his hand on my shoulder and just leaned in by my ear and said, ‘I just know you’re going to do well!’”

With that one touch and those simple words, “All of the worry, stress, and panic seemed to flood out of my toes. I remember that moment to this day. It just may have changed my life.” He was the only teacher who took the time to make that pre-test connection with students. She wondered what would have happened to her, if she hadn’t had the one teacher willing to be that different. “Without that simple act, I’m almost positive I would have failed that test,” she said. “But because of him, I not only passed, I fell in love with math. Now, I try my best to pass that feeling on to my students.”

From the moonlight on the ocean to the pink sand by the sea, you can’t help being struck by Bermuda’s beauty. But it is this simple story that will stay with me from this trip. It’s a great reminder that while the bells and whistles of technology might ring and blow with possibility and the power of education policy is formidable indeed, it is often the simple acts, the small moves, and the supportive side comments of those on the front lines that can have the most beautiful results.