This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter

Years ago, I was in my first season as the head coach of the boys basketball team at my middle school.  The girls coach came to me just before the last game and told me that our school’s tradition was to call eighth grade players and their parents to the floor at halftime to recognize them for the contributions that they had made to our teams.  “I give each of my girls a rose as a way of saying thank you,” she said.  “Do you want me to pick some up for you?”

Figuring that my boys wouldn’t see roses in the same positive light as her girls, I decided to start my own tradition:  Giving each eighth grade player an Eisenhower silver dollar as a keepsake and reminder of his time on my team.  “These silver dollars,” I explained, “connect us to one another.  Ten years from now, you will find them in your box of special things or the drawer beside your bed and you will think of the time that we spent together and you will smile.”

I knew instantly that the coins mattered to my kids.

In the moment — on the floor in front of their friends and family — they couldn’t take their eyes off of them.  They turned them over and over in their hands; they jumped when their coins dropped — afraid that they had somehow cheapened the gift; they kept them on the bench for the entire second half, passing them off for safekeeping whenever they subbed into the game; and they spent the next three weeks showing them to me whenever we passed in the halls.

Since then, I’ve given out hundreds of silver dollars.

Sometimes the moment is formal — an end of the season pot luck dinner, a team Honors assembly, a gathering to celebrate the work of an individual or a group of students.  Other times, the moment is informal — in my classroom after a student has done something to make me proud, in the hall on the last day of school, in the lunchroom after cafeteria duty ends.  EVERY time, the moment matters — to both me and to the students that I’m recognizing.

A reminder of just how powerful those moments can be landed in my email inbox this week.  Check this out:

Hey Mr. Ferriter, 

I went to Salem Middle a long time ago.  You may remember me vaguely.  I was a manager for soccer during my sixth grade year when you were the coach.  Your last season of coaching was during my seventh grade year, when I was cut during tryouts.  My final year at Salem, I played on the team.  I am about to graduate from Panther Creek and move on to college at NC State, and I am writing to you today to let you know that even though I haven’t seen you in four years, you’ve made an impact on my life.

I will never forget my last day of eighth grade at Salem.  I wrote a letter to you about a week before, thanking you for the lessons you had taught me when I was a manager in sixth grade….You called me out of class to speak with me about the letter.  I remember how you apologized for cutting me during my 7th grade year and you kept praising me for not the soccer player I had become, but for the man I had become.  

I also remember crying in front of you, and trust me those were tears of joy.  I also remember you giving me advice about high school, and about staying the man I had become.  At the end of our talk, you handed me a silver dollar, since you had given one to every player during the year that I was cut.  You told me that even though I may have not deserved to be on the team for my soccer abilities, that I completely deserved it for the person that I was.

I wanted to let you know that I still have my silver dollar.  I see it often, and whenever I do, I automatically think of you.  I think of our talk, and the kind words and advice you had given me…

I just wanted to say thank you!  Even though you only coached me for one year, I am extremely grateful for the coach that you were.  You never taught me as a teacher, but as a coach, you have had a tremendous impact on my life.

And I know you are wondering, and the answer is yes:  I will most definitely be bringing my silver dollar with me to NC State!

Thanks, 

Trevor

Amazing, right?  Needless to say, I’ll keep that email forever.  It’s a small bit of proof that my work hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

What people don’t understand about teachers and coaches is that we aren’t driven by content or conference championships or big fat paychecks or summers off.  We are driven by the notion that we might just make a difference in the lives of a handful of kids over the course of our careers.  And the best part of our gig is that each new day is FILLED with moments that have the potential to be powerful.

We just have to keep our eyes — or maybe our hearts — open in order to find them.

This is why I teach.

______________________

Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: Inspiring Jake

This is Why I Teach: They Don’t Judge Me by a Test

This is Why I Teach: They are Learning From Me

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  • JasonParker

    This is beautiful!

    Bill, thanks for sharing. This is a beautiful story, and a really incredible practice to acknowledge students and athletes. Thanks for all of the work you put in to your classroom and into coaching!

    • billferriter

      Hey Jason, 

      Hey Jason, 

      Thanks for the kind words — and believe me:  I get as much as I give when it comes to being a classroom teacher.  I forget that sometimes, but beautiful moments like this are never very far away.  

      Hope you are well, 

      Bill

       

       

  • BillIvey

    Beautiful.

    Sharing this back out. I hope everyone I know reads it. Twice.

    🙂

    • billferriter

      Thanks, Bill.  

      Thanks, Bill.  

      It’s moments like this that drive us, right?  I know that’s as true for you as it is for me. 

      Human moments are always reminders that we make more of a difference than we can ever really know.

      Bill

  • akrafel

    Why I Teach

    This is a heartfelt piece. You so beautifully capture the essence of teaching. It is all about personal connection.  Connection not only of the mind, but also of the heart and soul.  You changed that young man by seeing the man within shining out.  That, I think is more important than teaching any content we might be asked to teach. We teach content because that is what we do, but what we love is the connections that we make.  You just never know when you are going to change someone’s life path. And that makes the work heartfelt and deeply nourishing to both teacher and student.  You allowed the kindhearted man you are to shine out and welcome those kids to adult life. Thank you for all those coins you gave out in recognition of the individuals striving towards selfhood.  The gift goes both ways doesn’t it.
     

    • billferriter

      Alysia wrote:

      Alysia wrote:

      The gift goes both ways doesn’t it.

      ——————-

      This.  Totally this.  

      I always feel, Alysia, that I am the lucky one in moments like this.  The reward that matters most is knowing that you’ve mattered.  

      I dig that.

      Bill

       

  • Gino Bond

    The true value

    Bill, a great story – thanks for sharing.

    It's amazing what this profession does for us: I alway say that teaching has made me a better husband, father and man. The power of the job lies in the fact that we get as much or more from those we serve than they receive from us. You see, you didn't just make a difference in Trevor's life, he greatly impacted you with his story …and this impact is what we all, to some degree or other, share in common. It's my Director of Tech talking about how digital literacy can impact a child and getting emotional (for a tech person!) when recounting the story of the student with the learning needs who came back years later to thank her for "changing" his life; it's my wife, the grade 5 teacher, who 20 years later gets flown to Hawaii by one of her former students for her wedding ("you made me believe that I could do anything, Mrs. Bondi").

    Bill, I believe that ours is the noblest profession. However, it's a lot like faith in that  for the most part, we go in well intentioned and with a 'difference making' passion that rivals monastic zeal but at the core of it all is the hope of the possibility. We rarely get to see how it ends for our students – not all of them come back to share their stories. We just hope that through our works, our shoulder to shouder interactions and our commitment to leading in ways that facilitates intellectual social and emotional growth, that all of us can give each child we serve a metaphorical silver dollar. 

    • billferriter

      Gino wrote:

      Gino wrote:

      We just hope that through our works, our shoulder to shouder interactions and our commitment to leading in ways that facilitates intellectual social and emotional growth, that all of us can give each child we serve a metaphorical silver dollar. 

      ————–

      You know what drives me nuts, Gino?  

      All too often in today’s world, we forget that the social and emotional growth of kids is important, too.  We get so hell bent on the intellectual growth (read: higher test scores and graduation rates) that our organizations become places devoid of humanity.  Maybe if we focused more on social and emotional well being, the intellectual growth would take care of itself. 

      I needed that reminder.  

      Bill

      • akrafel

        Places Devoid of Humanity

        This really rings true for me.  When we created a teacher-powered school, we intentionally moved against this trend. We consciously created a culture of kindness where emotional health had a chance to grow right along with reading and math.  So important. All the teachers work on it in the same direction.  Can be very powerful. I wondered how teachers in schools where humanity takes a backseat to tests counter this trend.  Probably with all those metaphorical silver dollars and many more acts like it.  Loss of the ability to be human would do great damage to a soulful teacher.  Teaching is too hard without that soul energy going back and forth.

  • Gino Bond

    The true value

    Bill, a great story – thanks for sharing.

    It's amazing what this profession does for us: I alway say that teaching has made me a better husband, father and man. The power of the job lies in the fact that we get as much or more from those we serve than they receive from us. You see, you didn't just make a difference in Trevor's life, he greatly impacted you with his story …and this impact is what we all, to some degree or other, share in common. It's my Director of Tech talking about how digital literacy can impact a child and getting emotional (for a tech person!) when recounting the story of the student with the learning needs who came back years later to thank her for "changing" his life; it's my wife, the grade 5 teacher, who 20 years later gets flown to Hawaii by one of her former students for her wedding ("you made me believe that I could do anything, Mrs. Bondi").

    Bill, I believe that ours is the noblest profession. However, it's a lot like faith in that  for the most part, we go in well intentioned and with a 'difference making' passion that rivals monastic zeal but at the core of it all is the hope of the possibility. We rarely get to see how it ends for our students – not all of them come back to share their stories. We just hope that through our works, our shoulder to shouder interactions and our commitment to leading in ways that facilitates intellectual social and emotional growth, that all of us can give each child we serve a metaphorical silver dollar. 

  • TriciaEbner

    So absolutely true.

    What a wonderful reminder this is to me in these crazy-busy last days of my school year. I need to “stop and smell the roses,” or “stop and consider the silver dollar” with my students. These are those intangibles that no evaluation system will ever adequately capture. These are the reasons we teach. 

    Carrying this with me today and going forward. 

  • JustinMinkel

    Tangible talismans

    Bill,

    What’s amazing about the digital age can also be a kind of poverty of the senses: visually we take in more than ever, but our fingertips don’t touch that same kaleidoscope. 

    Barnett and I were talking about the home library project a couple weeks back and the idea of ebooks as a possibility. He said, “I don’t know if your students would have had the same connection to the books if they couldn’t actually hold and touch them.”

    There is something powerful about talismans. I still have most of the books from the three shelves I had as a kid (the bookshelf itself hammered together by my dad) and I love to see one of them in my daughter’s hands now.

    Your post has me thinking about a tangible talisman I can give to my first graders when our finaly day together comes in just over one week’s time, something they can hold onto now and many years from now.