Coming off of a week filled with wide-ranging public displays of appreciation for teachers, it is heartening to see that there is still regard for the people who spend so much time focused on growing and inspiring young people. The gestures during teacher appreciation week demonstrate the parent and student appreciation for the daily efforts of teachers committed to educating students.
I do not believe, though, that appreciation (including lunches, gift cards, and candy) is the same as honoring our great teachers. Yes, teachers appreciate these kind gestures, but they are not the reason the really good ones show up to work each day. This is not why they arrive early to lead clubs, stay late to help students or meet parents, or work after their kids go to bed to finish lesson planning or grading. Gestures of appreciation are not the reason that teachers go to great lengths to model in their personal lives what they teach their students in the classroom (for instance, being sure to take that extra moment to stop and say hello to families in the store or at the movies, or being mindful to avoid contact with students on nights when they are engaging in certain social adult activities). The really great teachers — they do not live the life of a teacher because they are fueled by gestures of appreciation.
Great teachers are great because they believe in the power of guiding and supporting others as they grow. Great teachers know that every person is born with the potential for greatness, regardless of his/her circumstances. And they know that despite the circumstances a young person faces, that person can make the decision to fulfill their potential. Talk to teachers about kids, about their students — you can truly feel that deep-seated belief within great teachers.
This week I will have the opportunity to honor one of my great teachers in his final journey. Chris Bichler was my high school history teacher, football and wrestling coach, mentor, inspiration, and eventually became my colleague and friend. He passed away on May 3 after a long fought battle with cancer. Serving as one of his pallbearers, I will have the great privilege and honor of physically carrying Chris in his final departure. However, it is not lost on me that even though Chris is not physically here with us any longer, the spirit of Chris, and of all great teachers, lives on in all of us who had the distinct pleasure of being formed by them. I carry Chris with me in every aspect of my life.
So, how do I best honor Chris? How do we all honor our truly great teachers who have given us so much? Here are a few ways:
Be your best you every day. Take no days off from giving life everything you have and rising above whatever challenges stand in front of you. Think back to those really great teachers — isn’t that what they were encouraging that younger version of you to do? If they could be by your side every day, wouldn’t they still be cheering for you, encouraging you to take a chance, be your best, and go for it. Use that inspiration, their belief in you, to be the best you.
Help others to rise to their potential greatness. Great teachers believe that every person can be great, even when those people struggle to believe in themselves. Think back to those great teachers. The kids in your class, the ones you did not know the personal stories of at the time, the ones who were facing insurmountable odds, your teacher believed in them just as much as they believed in you. To truly honor those great teachers, take a page out of that same playbook and carry the belief that the people around you today are capable and deserving of reaching their full potential. You can help them get there. Maybe it is having faith in your kids, encouraging your spouse, or coaching a significant other or family member. Maybe it is giving an aging employee at the end of his/her career an opportunity to re-ignite his/her passion by trusting them to learn a key new skill. Or maybe it is just acknowledging great effort (no matter how small the task) wherever you see it, or offering caring feedback when you do not. Own the responsibility to help others along their path in the same way that your great teacher did for you many years ago.
Share their lessons. My daughter loves quotes. She uses them regularly, writes them in her room and on her notebooks. She said to me, “I feel like those quotes are teaching me lessons.” They are. Those are great teachers, people she has never met, sharing great nuggets of wisdom with her. The great teachers you have had along the way have shared great nuggets of advice and wisdom with you. It is now your turn to pass them along in support of others. Talk about your teachers. Tell their story. Share their passion, their wit, confidence, quirkiness, and wisdom. Use their lessons. Great teachers believe that together we can change the world, and telling their story and sharing their wisdom is probably the most important way you can honor them.
Say thank you. Now that I am no longer able to express my gratitude for all that Chris taught me, I am so thankful I was able to tell him how much I appreciated him and his efforts in shaping me. Be sure to seize that opportunity for those great teachers in your life. It does not require a visit to your hometown or a grand gesture. Just simply make a point of saying thank you and sharing how that person helped you to become a better person. Great teachers wonder if their efforts have an impact. Assure them that they do.
Lessons from Chris
In honor of one of my great teachers, let me share just a few of the most important lessons Chris taught me along the way. I am honored to share small parts of his story.
Think bigger than your immediate surroundings
I grew up in a small, rural town. The small size and geographic isolation of our town could have become a limiting bubble of my (and my classmates) world view. Knowing this, and knowing the limitation this could have on us for the rest of our lives in shaping how we thought about the world, Chris challenged us to think beyond our bubble. As our coach, Chris constantly reminded us that we were not competing against each other, or competing against kids in our neighboring towns, or competing against kids in our area conference. We had to think bigger — we were competing again teams from across the state, teams throughout history. In constantly reminding us of this, he forced us to acknowledge the larger world that existed beyond our immediate lives, and he helped us to shape a greater perspective of the world that surrounded us. This has entirely influenced my view of the world beyond my own to this day.
Play hard, but show respect for others in the process
Chris was competitive and we played to win, to succeed, to be the best we could be. He taught me to value personal success. However, a mantra he repeated sticks with me to this day: “Play hard between the whistles. Knock them down. And when the whistle blows, pick them back up.” In doing so we learned to respect others, even people we did not know. Working hard, focusing on goals and aiming to be successful — these are important lessons. Equally important, though, is acknowledging that others are giving their best as well, and are deserving of our appreciation and respect. We live in a time where acknowledging the best in others, respecting our differences, and understanding that we are all aiming toward a better tomorrow (even if our values, opinions, and methods are not all in alignment) could go a long way to healing divisive wounds.
Success requires setting clear goals and continual preparation
Whether it was in his classroom or on the field, Chris insisted on goal setting and hard work. He had a motto one season: “If you want to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.” He acknowledged the importance of setting goals and reminding yourself of those lofty goals. However, his daily routines focused on how goals are achieved: step by step, daily routine, consistency, and effort. Want to do well on that AP History exam? Live the routine of reading the text, making the annotations, and studying. Want to succeed on the mat? Learn to never quit during the grueling practices. Want to be a better teacher? Learn to reflect on your lessons after each day, determine what went well and why, what did not and why, and aim to do better tomorrow. Chris taught us a measured, consistent approach to being well prepared to seize the moment when the opportunity came to achieve your goals.
Teams over individuals - every person brings a unique skill set that can benefit the team
Despite the deepest protestations of many players (and I’m sure some parents) Chris used the platoon system on the field. This means that instead of using the 11 best players on the football field (which was the conventional wisdom of most high school coaches at the time), Chris insisted on fielding a defensive squad of 11 or 12 + an offensive squad made up of another 11 or 12 players. He rotated players, subbed players, and made sure that he prepared the best 22 - 25 players to be on the field throughout the game.
At age 16 it drove me crazy. I believed that putting the best players on the field was the right approach. Chris stood by his conviction that a team of 25 committed, connected players was always stronger than a team of a few really great individuals. Yes, he taught us teamwork, and he taught us commitment. But thinking about how that lesson has played out over the course of my life, I better understand now the value that each individual can bring to a team. When we rely upon a few key people to make our organization great, we see pocketed success. When we expect everybody to use their talents and commitment to make the whole of organization better, our organization benefits in ways that we could not imagine. Additionally, Chris taught me, through this lesson, that having faith in your beliefs matters — especially in the face of frustrated 16-year-old players and their parents.
If you have made it to the end, thank you. And thank you for considering the ways that you will honor the great teachers in your life, and support and encourage the great teachers who are making a difference in the lives of your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.
God bless you, Chris! And thank you to all of those truly great teachers that I have been fortunate enough to know in my own journey. Your lessons live with me every day!