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The Most Important Factor in Teaching

By Gary Greeno

For the last 30 years I have loved being in the classroom teaching middle school and high school math. For 28 of those years you could find me after school in the gym coaching the school’s basketball team. As I reflect back over these years and the many students and athletes I’ve interacted with, I can’t help but think about the most important factor in touching the life of a student in a positive way.

We can all think back to our days in school and recall a teacher that made a huge difference in our lives. In my speaking and working with people in all walks of life, I’ve never asked the question about what teacher made a significant difference, without getting an answer. Great teachers who make a lasting impact are not forgotten. They leave their mark, and for years…decades we remember them and the life lessons they taught us.

Who was that teacher for you?

What an amazing thing to think that you now have the opportunity to be THAT teacher for your students.

As you think about the most important factor in reaching students, you must keep in mind every single day what your overall objective is as a teacher. Great teachers never forget about their top priority.

I remember when I interviewed for a coaching position years ago, someone on the interview committee asked me, “Coach Greeno, what do you teach?” I know she was expecting me to say something like math, or English, or science…but I said with a smile, “I teach students”. And then I explained that I’m a math teacher, but my focus is not on math it’s on my students. Therefore, I teach students math.

But that’s not all I teach them.

When you understand the most important factor in reaching students, you realize that the subject you teach is definitely not it!

More than teaching math, I teach students how to be successful. My focus in teaching is to use math to teach students how to be successful in life. That was always my focus on the basketball court as well.

Another interview question I often got was this: “Are you a teacher first and then a coach? Or are you a coach first, and then a teacher?” I used to love getting this question. Whenever it was asked, I would always pause, look the person in the eye that asked me this question and then say, “That’s a very good question and I’ve seen both types. I’ve seen teachers who put everything into their students and classroom, but didn’t do a very good job coaching….and I know you don’t want that from me. But I’ve also seen teachers who really don’t teach a whole lot and do not have productive classrooms because they put everything into their athletes and winning games…and that is not acceptable either.”

Then I tell them, “I wouldn’t call myself either one. Rather, I am an educator. I want to educate every person I come in contact with how to be successful in life, both now and in the future.” When I’m in the classroom that is my priority. When I’m on the basketball court, that is still my priority.

The method is different, but the end goal is the same.

My teams have won several championships over the years, but the wins on the court are not near as important as the wins in lives of my student-athletes. I learned this truth years ago from my mentor, Coach John R. Wooden. When he was asked if he had a successful season or not, he would say something like, “I think so, but I’m not sure. Check back with me in 5-10 years and I’ll let you know.” He went on to explain that if his student-athletes were living successful, productive lives, living up to their full potential as human beings, then he was successful as their coach.

When you make this type of impact your top priority, then you are on your way to making a huge impact in the lives of your students.

So, what is the most important factor in making this type of impact?

It’s the relationship you develop with each student. For only when you develop a trusting, and caring relationship with your students can you then impact them beyond your subject.

Being the best math teacher, or English teacher, or history teacher means you are teaching students first by developing the type of rapport where they will be receptive to what you have to offer them…well beyond the subject of your class.

This should be your focus each and every day.

Now, I’ve seen many teachers (and I’ve been there too!) get so caught up in the day, the class period, the lesson planning, the grading, the problems, the discipline, the parents, the admin, that they forget the most important factor is the relationship they are developing with their students.

In those moments of frustration and chaos, remember to find your way back by reminding yourself about what’s most important.

And please remember, it’s not about the present. In every decision you make, every word you speak, always ask yourself, “What will this student say about me 5 to 10 years from now?”

It’s OK if they don’t “like you.” This is hard for some teachers to hear because we all want to be liked. However, more than wanting your students to like you, you should want them to respect you. If you aim for being liked, you may compromise some of your decisions for what’s best for them, and in the process lose their respect. And if they don’t respect you, they probably won’t like you too much so you lose out on both.

But if you focus on earning their respect, they may not like you in the moment, but they will respect you and eventually that respect will very often turn into liking you. Seek to earn their respect first, and very often you get both.

As you develop that relationship, you are better able to teach your students what’s most important. You will make a lasting impact on their life because you are teaching life skills. You are teaching how to win in the classroom and in life. To do this, you have to have discipline, order, systems, consistency, a listening ear, and love.

You are teaching students how to overcome challenges and adversity. They have no idea the difficulties and challenges they will face in the years to come. But they can look back on what you taught them, and modeled for them and realize you helped them build a foundation in their lives to be able to handle whatever life throws at them.

You are teaching your students to persevere. You are teaching them to dig down deep and fight, and not give up when the going gets tough.

You are teaching them that knowledge is power. With knowledge and education come opportunities.

You are teaching them that character counts. Honesty and integrity are virtues that still matter.

You are teaching them that anything is possible for their lives.

As your student gets into their 20’s and 30’s and look back on their short time with you, what will they remember? Will they remember how you held them accountable and taught them how to be responsible? Will they remember how you treated them fairly and gave them the benefit of the doubt? Will they remember the teacher that never made them feel dumb, but made them feel like they could learn anything?

Will they remember that from you they heard the four most important words in the human language, “I believe in you.”

It’s easy to get so caught up in our day-to-day duties, especially with distance learning now, and forget what matters most. Foster your relationship with every student on that screen or in your class. Find out what they are interested in and ask them questions. There is a time for getting down to business, but never overlook the fact that the rapport you establish with your students is crucial. That relationship is the most important thing to making a lasting impact on your students.

Gary Greeno is an educator, coach, published author, and motivational speaker. He currently resides in Stockton, CA where he teaches math at Lincoln High School. For 30 years Gary has been teaching, coaching, and motivating others to be at their best in all areas of life. Gary uses the strategies and technique he learned through years of coaching to help students and teachers development a winning mindset, and achieve success at the highest level possible. You can reach Gary through email, his website, or connect with him on social media.

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