Educator Insights, Featured Resources

Honesty, Rigor, Caring: the thesis of 40 years of teaching


Whether you’ve been teaching for years or are just starting out, I think that one thing that all teachers wonder is this: Am I making a difference? what exactly did my students take away from me? 

We all probably have ideas about what we hope our students take away from us, but what actually sticks, what students really remember as something that stood out to them from our time spent with them–that’s a little harder to pin down!

It was thought provoking then to hear a story on NPR about a teacher who retired from 40 years in education and got a chance to hear a little about what her students remembered about her as a teacher. In the article, “Letters to the Teacher Celebrate A 40-Year Career,” a teacher discovers the “thesis” of her life’s work through around 75 letters from students across her years of teaching. The three things she found repeated over and over really stood out to me:

  1. Honesty
  2. Rigor
  3. Caring

They seems sort of “no-brainers” at first, but to consistently be able to do all three is a pretty tough task. It is one however that makes a huge difference in any classroom, and I would argue especially for language classrooms that have peace at their foundation. Why?

Peaceful interaction, communication and peacebuilding related action in its many forms (social justice, development, conflict transformation) requires honesty and truth-telling between related parties. If we are able to model this in the classroom and work hard to teach the language skills required to do it well, we will set our students up for more success as peacebuilders in whatever walk of life they end up in.

In learning language and in peace building, hard work is absolutely required. Anyone who took 4 years of a language in high school/college and passed their tests fine only to find a few years later that they can barely string together a sentence (hello my sad excuse for French!) knows that serious and continued effort is what it takes to learn and use a new language well. Peacebuilding too, though pacifistic, is absolutely not ‘passive.’ It requires enormous amounts of work and perseverance. Holding our students to high standards will mean that the education they receive will be something that lasts, and can be put in to practice.

Neither honesty nor rigor is safe coming from an un-caring teacher. Expressing honestly can become insulting, asking for honesty can become intrusive and rigor can become oppressive unless the teachers advocating these things with their students has shown them that they care deeply. Students need to know that their teacher cares about what they are going through and genuinely wants to help them be their best–not because it makes them look better as a teacher, but because they see each student as infinitely valuable and full of potential. I would argue also that learning to use language and also to approach situations of conflict in a caring manner are two very important skills we want to be sure to help our students learn by modeling it ourselves.

Quite the list…I’ll be the first to admit that I feel skeptical of my ability or any teacher to get those three things right all the time. So perhaps we should add a fourth essential element to the mix:

Teachers must show both themselves and their students grace. 

What is the “thesis” of how you would like to teach? If you’re already teaching, what do you think your students would say is your thesis?

What else would you add to the list of things important to communicate through your actions to your students?




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Contributing Author

Abigail Long is a 2012 graduate of Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and a member of Fairview Ave Brethren in Christ Church in Waynesboro, PA. She spent 14 months teaching English in South Korea at the Connexus Language Institute and is deeply interested in the connections between language learning, teaching and peacebuilding.

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