Lisa Lee: Getting at the Heart of Teaching at TEDxCrestmoorParkED (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of former DeKalb teacher Lisa Lee’s TEDx Talk: Getting at the Heart of Teaching at TEDxCrestmoorParkED conference.

Lisa Lee – former DeKalb teacher 

Are you ready to get started? Yes, we are. Don’t need to do that again.

I’ve been teaching for over 26 years. Long enough to have moved from, “Ms. Lee, you’re like my favorite auntie” to “Ms. Lee, you’re my second mom.” Then it became, “Ms. Lee, you’re like my grandma.” I didn’t mind so much, because I already played one in real life, right?

Well recently, you know where this is going, I met the family of one of my new students. The next day, she came in – I love Photoshop, this picture – She came in and said, “You know, my parents said you remind them of my great-grandmother.” So, after I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Um, why?” And she said, “Well, she lives in Louisiana.” I’m like, I’m from Georgia, I get that. “And she plays tennis.” I’m obviously in great shape, so, I get that. “She’s really funny.” Not as funny as me, but OK I’ll go with that. “And she lives on a gator farm.” I suddenly realized I can relate to that too, because I teach middle school.

Yes, for the last 11 years I’ve been a teacher of what I call, lovingly, hormones with legs. And I taught, before that, elementary school for many years and never planned on my shadow darkening the doorway of a middle school classroom.

So, I was asked as a favor, to interview for my first job. And I got there and the principal said, “I don’t know why HR sent you; you’re not even certified for middle school.” I said, “I know, right? And I don’t even like them!” She laughed, kind of, and then I said, “I think you should pepper spray them once a day, they’ll need it sooner or later.” And, after she picked herself up off the floor from laughter, she said, “You’re going to be perfect for my students.”

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But, really I disagree with her, because they turned out to be so perfect for me. I know there’s lots of people like educators, teachers in the audience – show me where you are, people that work with kids. Thank you for being here. I know some of you are still pretty new and maybe you haven’t even lived as long as I’ve taught. But I realize there are young people here.

I have a secret. I don’t usually tell people. Have you figured out there’s a lot of meetings in education? I often say to myself – but not out loud – I hope I pass on in one of those meetings, because the transition would be so subtle, I wouldn’t even know it had happened. I don’t say that very often. But, I do truly believe that what we are doing is the most important thing in the world. John Steinbeck writes about teachers, and he says: “I have come to believe a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. In fact, teaching is – not may be – is ‘the greatest of the arts’ because the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

And then Steinbeck writes: “Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck.” I’m here to tell you that I know the importance of those real teachers. And not just because I’m standing in this position as a teacher today but because of what teachers meant to me.

I grew up in a small Georgia town, where your Sunday school teacher was likely to be at school the next day as your social studies teacher. And, in that little tiny southern town, there walked the most fine group of educators that have ever lived on this planet. From my early years on, those men and women taught me so much. Mostly outside the curriculum. They taught me that I had value as a person and that I mattered. They saw me as an individual, and they saw something in me that they believed in and made me believe in as well.

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Their classrooms were places of safety and security. When I was a junior in high school, my mom died. And the evening after her funeral, I was sitting and reading her obituary, over and over .The reality of a life without my mom was just starting to sink in, hard. The door opened and my math teacher walked in. This is another secret I don’t usually tell my students, but I was a really rotten math student and that didn’t matter. She didn’t see me as a number or a score that would increase her overall rating somewhere down the line. She saw me as a person.

And she came over and she just held me in her arms. It was teachers who took me to grocery shop for my family, when I didn’t have any idea how to do that, because I was the oldest. They took me to buy my prom dress. I went on family vacations with them. I was welcomed in their homes, through college, past college. And today lots of them are my Facebook friends, because we’re still cool like that.

Steinbeck says many things about teachers, but this one little phrase resonates with me more than any other: “If you are very lucky, you may find a teacher.” Well, I was a recipient of so much good fortune then. And guess what? It’s continued on in my children, for 26-plus years I have learned one thing: no matter who I teach, the age, children are children, and they teach me more every day than I could ever hope to impart to them. For instance: You wanted to hear that, right? For instance, they’ve taught me that show and tell is important, regardless of the age. It could be a missing tooth or it might be a new piercing that the parents don’t even know about yet. But it’s important, because they’re seen as individuals and who they are.

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