Focusing on What is Important

In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.

Nikos Kazantzakis

Holiday time gets me a little nostalgic. Please indulge my nostalgia and let me tell you about a person who made, and continues to make, a great impact on me, a former student of mine, Kevin.

I met Kevin when he was a high school freshman; I was teaching a class called General Math. I don’t think there is such a course anymore. And, that is a good thing! Kevin stood out from the moment he walked in my classroom. Understand, this was the 80’s and I taught at a very “preppy” suburban school district. Most male students wore khakis and polo’s. Not Kevin! He was sporting a Mohawk haircut and a dangling earring. If tattoos had been available in our area at the time, he would have had several. (In fact, he does!)

I believe it was the first or second day of school that I went home thinking, that kid is not going to leave my class the same way he came in! General Math was a non-college bound track that included basic skills math with a bit of consumer math thrown in, definitely not higher level math. The problem, as I saw it, was not Kevin’s appearance. The problem was a very angry young man, someone who did not belong in a General Math class!

Later that week, I walked by Kevin’s desk and murmured “What are you doing in this class?” With attitude abounding he responded, “What do you mean?! I’m assigned to this class!” “You are way too smart to be in this class,” was my reply. He looked startled as I kept walking. I truly did not think about what I was doing, it was instinctive. From that point on, Kevin worked out of an Algebra book with assignments I tailored for him. I also taught Algebra and Geometry so it was easy for me to differentiate his work. Strangely enough, we didn’t think of it as “differentiation” in the 80’s, it was merely addressing the student’s needs, teaching to his level.

The following couple of years, Kevin worked as my student aide. By my design or plotting if you want to think about it that way. I wanted to ensure Kevin got any extra help he needed for his math classes since he was taking courses from other math instructors who did not know him. It was a safety-net. He was comfortable asking me questions and we had developed a good working relationship, even friendship, without any negative connotations. I remember one time when Kevin was a senior; I had another student threaten me. Yes, it happened back then at affluent suburban schools! Kevin heard about the incident and came by to see me, asking if I wanted him to take care of the student for me. No! No! No! Some aspects of Kevin’s personality did not and will never change!

After high school and over the next few years, Kevin would periodically “appear” on my doorstep. Usually, it was when he was struggling with a decision or wanted to talk over a choice he had made. One of those choices was his decision to join the military, the Navy specifically. More specifically, he wanted to be a Navy Seal. My response was “you can do anything you decide to do.” I truly believed that then and do now. Kevin spent six very successful years as a Navy Seal. It broke his heart when due to old high school football injuries; he could no longer pass the rigorous physical exam. That led to two unhappy years as a civilian. Not a good fit!

There he was, back on my porch. Obviously, we had something to talk about. Never mind that I had not seen him in a year or more. Kevin had given civilian life a try and was ready for another stint at the military, Army this time. Not just the basic Army… he wanted to fly helicopters. Of course he did! That was what we needed to talk about. What did I think? I think you can do anything you decide to do, Kevin. So… he did.

He continues to serve in the Army, has been promoted numerous times, and has flown missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. Needless to say, I am so proud of him and his accomplishments.

What does this post have to do with blended learning and teaching? Sometimes it is easy to focus on the latest gadgets, online platforms, strategies, etc. But the truth is, teaching is not about the technology. Learning is not about the mechanisms. Teaching and learning are about relationships. In fact, everything important is about relationships and people. Remember this holiday season to focus on the important aspects of what you do and who you are, the people in your life, including those you influence and teach.

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