Some things go with the territory of being a teacher: sticky notes, colored pens, and the preferred brand of stapler. Those of us who have been teachers could effortlessly rattle off the list of things we need to make our systems run. One of my must-haves as a teacher was the standard 3 1/2 by 4 7/8-inch note card. With one blank side and the other lined, they were perfect for gathering essential information on students, at least in the days of low technology. Quickly and concisely, I could collect all the important information I needed for the year within a few minutes, but the note cards also taught my students—and myself—important lessons.
I remember distributing the note cards on the first day of nearly every year I was teaching. One of my favorite stories is when a young lady in my advanced algebra class wrote down the name of her preferred contact in case of emergency. In those instances, I would routinely ask about the relationship to the student, as many didn’t live with a biological parent. When she said the person was her husband, it gave me great pleasure to tell her I wouldn’t be contacting her husband if she didn’t get her homework done. We shared a brief smile and laughed.
The power of the note cards became evident one day with a different group of students. On a whim several months into the school year, I handed them out so students could add one important piece of information: their role models. The purpose of my idea was to inspire the students in my class to think about life beyond themselves. I wanted them to reflect upon the qualities we admire in people and think about how they ought to live their lives more like the role models they listed.
After writing down names, we had a brief discussion on the qualities they saw in the people they admired. While the names spanned from older siblings, to parents, to celebrities—and even comic book characters—the similarities of why people wrote down specific names were consistent throughout the class:
Aspirations: Our role models inspire us and set the visual example of what we think we can become. Often, students communicate with their role models and are not shy about letting them know they appreciate them.
Being There: Students appreciate people who are there for them through thick and thin. For students that admire their family members, the message is that these people are our fiercest protectors. They couldn’t imagine a life without them.
Acceptance: Our role models accept us for who we are as individuals. They look past our flaws and see the qualities that make us unique. They push us to get better and hold us accountable along the way.
Love: Be it from parents, grandparents, teachers, or friends, the power of humanity connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Few words can describe this deep admiration we have to those we know as role models. The word I choose to use is love.
I’m not sure how long our conversation lasted that day, but I’m sure I took the time I thought I needed to teach a life lesson and inspire them for at least the weekend. I heard amazing stories that day about students’ parents, coaches, friends, and siblings. This simple activity helped me get to know some students better than I had known them all year. The moment become real for me, however, when one of my senior students approached me to say, “Mr. Ricenbaw, I wrote down your name.”
Some of the best moments I’ve ever had in education have been those that haven’t been scripted. We call them “teachable moments,” and few outside of education can relate to the exhilaration of watching a student grow through things that can only be taught by experience. Normally, it is us as educators that get to enjoy and celebrate these magical moments. The teachable moment for me that day was the reminder of what it means to be a professional educator. My teary eyes and cracking voice could barely muster a “thank-you” as the student left to enjoy her weekend.
As principals, we’ve had a career’s worth of teachable moments these past few months. One of my colleagues even jokingly told me, “I’m tired of learning lessons.” I couldn’t agree more. We have encountered a range of emotions and been criticized for factors well beyond our control. Let us be reminded, though, of the opportunities right in front of us each and every day. Teachable moments are out there, and we are called now more than ever to provide the conditions to make them happen for our students and staff.
To this day, that life lesson from years ago gives me hope and guidance on how I should live and lead through the pandemic: Do it as though someone will choose your name to write down on the back of a note card.
Ross Ricenbaw is principal at Waverly Middle School in Waverly, NE. He is the 2019 Nebraska Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@jugglnprincipal).