The Power of a Teacher: Adam Saenz (Full Transcript)

Full text of psychologist Adam Saenz’s talk: The Power of a Teacher at TEDxYale conference.

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Adam Saenz – Psychologist

Something happened to me on Monday, August 25th, 2008. That was so significant for me, it literally changed the course of my career. That day was my first day ever, as a real, live, substitute teacher.

Now, since I’m a licensed psychologist, I know the best way to heal from a traumatic event is to talk about it. There’s so much I could tell you about what an absolute train wreck that day was, but let me give you some of the lowlights.

So, my method for behavior management for this classroom, an inner-city third grade classroom was that I was going to write their names on the board. You know, surely that would put the fear of God in them, as if, right?

So, 10 minutes before lunch, I’m trying to make this big dramatic point to the kids about how bad their behavior was and how disappointed the teacher was going to be.

And I said, “You know what’s really sad?” I said, “In 10 minutes, we’re about to go to lunch, and let me just check.” So, I start counting names, da-da-da-da-da. I said, “28 of you are going to be stuck in here with me at recess.”

This little girl in the back of the classroom, she raised her hand, “Sir, there are only 22 kids in this classroom.” And it was just stupid stuff like that all day long. It was a Master’s workshop and how not to lead a classroom.

So finally, we get through the day, the last bell rings, the kids are walking out, and that sure enough the last kid to leave the classroom was the one that had been riding me the hardest all day long. His goal that day was to make me cry, I know it.

So just before he gets to the door, he stops and he turns and he looks at me. And he says, “Hey, Dr. Saenz, you’re pretty cool man. Are you going to be my teacher again, tomorrow?”

Dude, I looked that kid straight in the eye, I said, “Oh, sweet God, I hope not.”

I got through the afternoon. I went home. You know that saying that a picture is worth a thousand words; a couple days later, I found this picture and I said, “Oh my Gosh! This picture captures my first day as a substitute teacher.”

I’m that guy, and this is that third-grade class, just squatting the collective rear end of their bad behavior on my skills. You can see who’s coming out on top.

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So, what I do as a psychologist in school, is a big part of what I do is I consult with teachers. So, teachers that are teaching children with academic and behavioral issues, I coach them. And I started thinking about, I said, “You know what? I do all this time teaching teachers but I’ve never taught in a classroom myself.”

And so, I started substitute teaching because I wanted just a taste of what it’s like to actually be in a classroom, to see if that, in any way, change what I believe that, like the recommendations that I was making or what I believe in theory or in practice, about how to intervene with children.

And let me tell you something, the first light bulb that went off for me after that very first day of substitute teaching was this: “Hey, Adam. Guess what, big guy? It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, it doesn’t matter where you got them from, it doesn’t matter what you think you know about education, unless you’ve actually taught in a classroom, day-in day-out, and done the work, there is no way you will ever understand how incredibly demanding and challenging that vocation is.”

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