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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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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.

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.”

And it was a huge moment of insight for me. And what happened was, I was overwhelmed with this sense of admiration for educators, for men and women across the country that are in classrooms everywhere, just flat-out getting it done, do an amazing job; overwhelmed at how incredible that is.

And then what happened was that feeling of being overwhelmed, it sort of shifted into one of curiosity, and I got intensely curious about this thing, I was wondering, “How do you get good at that thing called teaching,” number one. And number two, “how do you get good at it and stay good at it, when data showed that about half the teachers teaching in schools now will be employed in another profession in five years.”

So, for those of us who work in education, we go to so many conferences and workshops about the “how” of Education, the “where,” the “what,” the “when,” but I was curious about the “why,” the “why” of education. Because I know that whenever we engage a significant task, if we enter it with the right “why,” the “what,” the “where,” the “when,” the “how,” that usually falls into place.

So, I’ve started researching, what are the psychological variables that drive vocational satisfaction for educators? And the point that I want to share, the idea that I want to share today is this: when we in education, when we enter into that vocation from the right “why,” we posture ourselves and poise ourselves to make the kind of life-impacting relationships that have the power to change the future.

So, what I want to do is, I want to share a couple of case studies with you, and I think these case studies will do more to illustrate my point than me talking through my research and through data.

So, the boy on the left is a sixth-grade boy. His name is Lou. The girl on the right is a fourth-grade girl. Her name is Lauren. Let’s talk about Lou. Sixth-grade boy, Hispanic male, low socio-economic home. He’s got a single uninvolved parent, history of truancy, history of interaction with the legal system. He’s got an undiagnosed depression and he’s using street drugs to self-medicate.

Now, if you’re a classroom teacher and you have this kid in your classroom, this is the kid that will make you sit out in the parking lot on your campus and have an existential crisis. This is the kid that will make you sit out in February, when the snow’s piled that high and say “Do I really want to walk the 200 yards into that building, because I didn’t sleep well last night.”

But I guarantee you, Lou slept like a baby and he’s going to be loaded for bear and ready for me. And then you start thinking, “you know, like they don’t pay me enough for this. Why am I doing this?” And all that goes on. And if you have this kid in your classroom, he will wear you out. And if you have this kid in your classroom and he doesn’t wear you out, I would say one of two things is true of you; either you’re a superhero or you’re in just a little bit of denial. That’s this kid.

Well, this kid actually is not in sixth-grade anymore. Of all things, this little stinker grew up and became a licensed psychologist, and that’s what he looks like today. I was that kid. I was that kid.

Let me share my story with you. The setting is the early 1980s. The location is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the very southern tip, very close to the border of Mexico, 95% Hispanic. And I remember, I remember the look on my mom’s face the first time she had to come to juvenile to pick me up when I was arrested; the anger in her face.

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