Recently NPR had an interview with a teacher, Sophie Murphy. But it wasn’t about curriculum or classrooms or standards. It was about this teacher’s actions outside of the classroom. A plane was making a short flight in Australia and it needed to land and was running low on fuel but one of the passengers, a 14 year old boy with down syndrome, was feeling sick and didn’t want to return to his seat (preventing the plane from landing). The pilot needed to make sure the boy was in a safe place before he could land, but his family and the flight attendants were unable to convince him to return to his seat.
I have, unfortunately been on more than one flight where the call went out over the intercom, “Is there a doctor on this plane?” but on this flight, the call instead went, “Is there a teacher on board this flight? Is there a special needs teacher on board?”
Sophie Murphy answered that call. As a teacher with twenty years of experience she was uniquely prepared to help this boy, and therefore the flight, to safety. When she was later interviewed by NPR, Sophie said something that encapsulated what I too have believed for years about the teaching profession, “This is what teachers do. This is what they do in their classrooms every day. They problem-solve, and they connect with children on a daily basis. And any one of my colleagues and friends who are teachers would have done exactly the same.”
This is what teachers do every day. We problem solve and we connect with students. When we do that, we are able to help them in ways other people might not have been able to imagine.
I have long argued that teachers are first responders. Fire fighters and emergency room doctors are the first ones to help people when their lives or livelihoods are in danger. They sign up for their jobs knowing that their jobs exist because people need help. Teachers do the same. We sign up for our jobs because we know students need to learn things, and we want to be there to teach them. And we are very well aware that in many cases, our students’ lives and future livelihoods could very well hang in the balance of their education.
Teachers have that same incredible compulsion that all first responders have: we chose a job that means we will not be sitting back and relaxing, but rather actively facing challenges and surprises every day.
And, to me, just like the circulatory and cardiac systems are the systems first responders tend to focus on first, because life cannot be sustained without them, reading and writing are the first focus for many teachers. This makes perfect sense. Literacy is very often the life-sustaining force from which so much learning streams through.
One of the biggest ways we do this is exactly what Sophie Murphy said: through connecting with students. We do this in many different ways. We share our favorite books with students and listen raptly as they tell us about theirs. We share our learning struggles and foibles and commiserate when they stumble. We demonstrate writing technique by sharing stories from our own lives and ooh and aah when students trust us with their stories. We connect with them on a human level and see them both as they are and as they wish to be seen.
And teachers do problem solve on the regular. In just the past week of spending time with educators in their own buildings and classrooms I have witnessed the following:
- A group of middle school teachers writing mini-grants to get pop culture biographies their students want to read so the students can have stacks of books to read over summer vacation
- A kindergarten teacher who took her students on a writing picnic and playtime at the local park when the sunshine and spring weather was too tempting to allow for four-walls concentration
- A fifth grade teacher who hates fantasy books dragging home a bag overflowing with them in order to catch up on the books her students most like to read
- A third grade team who contacted embassies to set up interview for their students writing informational books about countries when there wasn’t enough available information the students could read independently
I know if you took a break to reflect on one twenty-four hour block from the school year, you would have a list several bullet-points long, of a variety of problems you faced and solved. A small skirmish over the drinking fountain, the missing book order money, a student embarrassed about her writing piece, a parent unsure how to challenge a student who is a sophisticated thinker… and that’s just before you finished you first cup of coffee on a Wednesday.
Teachers do it so regularly that sometimes we forget that not everyone responds to trouble the same way we do. We run to it. We study it. We connect. We use what we know and what our instincts tell us to do.
So it is really no surprise that Sophie Murphy answered that call. Whether it’s in the classroom, a grocery store line, a crowded amusement park or even an airplane, teachers are problem-solvers.
Colleen Cruz is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference October 23-25, 2016 in Providence, RI.
Colleen’s sessions at the conference include:
Monday, October 24, 2016
1:30 pm – 3:00 pm- “Pop Goes the Workshop: Using Pop Culture to Teach Craft, Structure and Meaning in Writing (Grades 3-8)”
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
10:15 am –11:45 am- “Name Your Monster: A Problem-Solving Protocol for Writing Instruction Challenges (Grades 4-8)”
1:00 pm – 2:30 pm- “Name Your Monster: A Problem-Solving Protocol for Writing Instruction Challenges (Grades 4-8)” (repeat session)