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Maybe Teaching Is Overrated…

Elissa Good Smith was the teacher speaker at this year’s Summer Institute in Philadelphia, PA. Below is her speech as prepared. You can also watch her speech!

I’m tired. I’m the kind of tired that is born from having two small children, plus a mountain of papers to grade and lesson plans to create for my six daily preps, the kind of tired that sneaks up on you after spending a decade in a classroom teaching. I’m thinking maybe teaching is overrated. Surely my favorite teachers never felt this way; they never had moments where they sat at their desk, closed their eyes, and prayed for the weekend, did they? My prayer was interrupted by a reminder email about a faculty meeting. I’m sure I rolled my eyes. I’m also sure I put on a smile as I begrudgingly walked down the hall to the auditorium to watch a video courtesy of our new principal. I found a seat next to colleagues, frustrated that the lights were turned down, so I couldn’t even sneak a peek at my cell phone without being noticed.  

The clip started—tick, tick, tick, tick. Sweet, I thought sarcastically—60 Minutes circa 1990—but as I began to watch that video clip where Wayne Dickey opens by saying, “People, I’m not ASKING you to get to class on time, I’m TELLING you to get to class on time,” my attention was piqued. This was my introduction to AVID. I watched the video, full of students who became eager to reach their potential, and I started to get excited. I’ll admit, I had some internal dialogue where my exhausted side argued with my starry-eyed ‘save the world’ side. My exhausted side said, “Nothing from a 10-minute video can change your teaching enough to matter,” and then my starry-eyed ‘save the world’ side—who had apparently been quiet for far too long—stretched her legs, stood up tall, and loudly told my exhausted side to ZIP IT. In a matter of minutes, that video gave me the spark I needed to get excited for the upcoming school year. I spoke with my principal and said I was interested in being an AVID Elective coach. Later, I’d find out I was—ahem—lucky enough to be the coordinator, also.    

I will admit my first steps into the AVID community were a bit selfish, as I was motivated to find something to make MY days more meaningful, probably equally as much as I wanted to impact the lives of my students. Our first year with AVID was a tough one; I’m sure many of you can remember those growing pains, and some of you may even be living them right now. Figuring out how to best select students only weeks before school began, learning how to explain the AVID phenomenon to our staff and community, and maneuvering how to adjust our schedule to fit AVID at the last minute were the tough parts. Getting excited to teach something that we knew was going to change lives—both for our students and for ourselves—that was the powerful part. Watching our students show us the way to their success, that has been the fun part.  

My job as an AVID Elective coach and coordinator is to be a cartographer, a mapmaker. I must help map the multiple paths to student success. I must carefully mark out the roadblocks and snares along the way, but I am not the navigator. I can only inspire my students to start moving toward their goals, to help them use their struggles as catalysts as they venture on toward their dreams. I need to share information with them to help them know what tools to pack for the adventure and provide them with support when they need a break or need encouragement as they change direction on the journey. AVID has given me the skills to make a better map for my students and the passion to help them find the spark for themselves that has ignited their journey.

This year, we will have our first group of AVID students graduate. Some days, it’s hard to believe it’s been nearly half a decade since they first joined AVID. Some days, however, I’ll admit it seems like it’s been a liiiiittle bit longer. Their maps show destinations like the State University of New York at Brockport, SUNY Albany, the University of Buffalo, and the United States Marine Corps. I am incredibly proud of these young ladies and gentlemen. Our first AVID class is comprised of students who have nearly every excuse possible not to pick up that map and start the difficult journey to bigger dreams. You know these students—those who have lost parents, immigrated here from a war-torn nation, those who are hungry, those with families torn apart by addictions—and I know you cheer for them just as proudly as I do. As they get ready to leave us, to move on to the next phase of life, may we be sure that they feel the pride of a community behind them.  

May this year be your year to make maps for your students, to help them learn to hurdle uncertainty, to bypass excuses, and to chase the X that marks the treasure held within a successful life.

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