Since being named the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year for the 2017-2018 school year, I have been asked to speak on everything from professionalism to teacher mentoring to best practices in the classroom. I have been asked to write articles like this, do television and radio interviews, and have been invited to appear at education conferences. At some point, the conversation invariably turns to the difficulties we all face at this time in the area of public education: Budget cuts, lack of funding, teacher shortages, and the overall negative climate that seems so pervasive in most education discussions these days.
When I am asked about these issues, most people seem a little taken aback when I do not jump on the negativity bandwagon and join them in bemoaning our problems. As a matter of fact, I have been accused of being out of touch. I have also been characterized as begging teachers to stay, and even of vilifying those who leave. None of these characterizations could be further from the truth.
The reality is I just finished my 34th year in an Oklahoma classroom. My wife just finished her 33rd. With 67 years of teaching between us in Oklahoma, I would say we qualify to speak with some authority on the subject of what the climate in education is truly like. To us, regarding our profession as a lost cause is out of the question.
While we do have some issues regarding public education, after almost seven collective decades of teaching, we’ve learned the attitude that one possesses concerning these issues—as with any issues in life—is what matters. Everyone faces negative circumstances in their lives. If we focus on the negatives, however, we will inevitably live in a state of constant disappointment. But if we choose to focus on the positives (and it is a choice) we can live daily with a smile on our face and a sense of purpose in our hearts. In other words, when things get tough, you have two choices: You can whine or you can shine.
Just because I don’t get angry and upset at the state of education doesn’t mean I’m out of touch. Just because I tell teachers all over the state that the “Best and Brightest” are those who stay even when the going gets tough, does not mean I am vilifying those who choose to leave.
What it does mean is this: I believe, despite it all, that being a teacher is the most blessed calling any person could ever have upon their lives. We, as teachers, have the greatest opportunity of any profession to make an eternal, positive difference in the life of a child, and even upon their families. The relationships that we build, the lifelong respect we are afforded, and the hugs, handshakes, cards, letters, and beaming smiles that all come from former students and parents are the rewards that other less fortunate people in other professions can only dream about. We—teachers—are the ones who do what others only wish they could do: We change the world.
But don’t take it from me. The following is a message that I awoke to on Facebook Messenger one morning, exactly one week into this past school year. A parent (who was a former student of mine) forwarded me a message from her daughter, who I had just started teaching.
“‘Mom…’” the message begins, “‘I really wish that every teacher out there could just be the same Godly, caring person that Mr. Hazell is. We can all go far with more teachers like him. [His] attitude gives you so much more motivation and confidence in yourself instead of the feeling of stupidity that others have left me with before, especially with this stupid dyslexia. I just wish my day started AND ended in his classroom because...he makes me want to do my best every day.’”
The parent continued with this reflection to me: “That moment when you thank the Lord above that your child wound up in your own favorite teacher’s classroom her senior year, and then realize that he has already made an early impact on a young girl who takes her studies and plans for her future very, very seriously. Ya still got it, sir.”
I’m not sharing this because I believe I am exceptional. On the contrary, I am sharing to remind you of the power educators have. We don’t make as much money as other professions, and we don’t have as many good benefits and perks. But we have something that you could never put a price tag on: The true gratitude, love and respect of a child and the knowledge that every single day we go to “work” to make this type of an impact on a child’s life.
When I remember this, it is impossible to be negative.