The Power of Teachers’ Decisions: A Direct Message to All Teachers

The Power of Teachers’ Decisions: A Direct Message to All Teachers

How many decisions do teachers make in one day? That’s a million-dollar question. With every decision, teachers have the power to impact the life of a child. The gravity of every decision is something I may not have fully considered as I walked into my first classroom 23 years ago. A direct message (DM) from Thomal, a former student, is the impetus of this blog. His recollection of the impact of his teachers’ decisions surprised me and sent me down memory lane. With Thomal’s permission, I’m sharing snippets of his message (in italics), which challenged me to reconsider in hindsight the weight of even the smallest decision.

Though Thomal pondered for four months before he pressed send, I am so happy he decided to share his heart and conscience with me. His perspective emphasizes the importance not only of instructional decisions teachers make but also of every small decision that impacts students . My intent is not to judge, but to use a student’s experience, my experience, and knowledge of research-based best practices to bring awareness.

Power to Protect

You are one of the reasons why I never accepted FAILURE. Your first year in teaching helped save my life. When I failed the 8th grade, my original class would pick on me for failing every day… You pulled me to the side on the outside and you said(paraphrasing) “Thomal, don’t let this moment in your life define you. You do not have to accept failure of any kind. One day, you’ll look back and these days will be a small portion of your life. You’re going to be just fine. You’ll make it.”

Sometimes teachers look away as students pick and play with each other. School is about allowing students to learn how to handle themselves socially. Teachers create safe spaces and a sense of community in which students know they have an advocate-someone who will speak up for them, even if it’s outside our classroom setting. My decision to talk to Thomal at that time was my way of protecting him from what might happen if he reacted to what he considered bullying. I now know he held on to those words of encouragement, which he attributes to his success.

Power to Encourage

That was over 20 years ago. That moment has never left me. I am what I am today because you played your role in my life. Those words have helped me. I used to put the words “DON’T ACCEPT FAILURE” on the walls in my classroom. I live by this. I tell my kids this. We are doing very well. My wife is a physical therapist. I’m a certified teacher with a Master's. We owned a trucking company with drivers and it’s because I refused to accept failure. Even when I mess up, I just keep trying until I get it right.

Yes, that’s right, Thomal became a teacher, and now he has the  opportunity to give his students the same advice I gave him and his classmates. I did not know he was being picked on because he had failed. I vaguely remembered our conversation, but I recall encouraging him not to give up. Many of those days, I was doing the best I could to manage my classes, but my decision to encourage students and invest in him made the difference for Thomal.

Power of the Pen

Thank you for not writing me up. You are one of the two teachers that didn’t write me up. 2!! To be honest, I wasn’t trying to be funny but it was taken that way. Even today, people take it that way.

As a new teacher, the worst advice I received came from a veteran teacher during my first year of teaching. I recall hearing veteran teachers talk about the power of the pen. This meant writing up students for infractions instead of using diverse strategies to manage behavior. It did not take long for me to learn that when I wrote students up or sent them out of the classroom, I was giving away my power to the principal. So, I looked for ways to handle disturbances by designing behavior contracts that forged classroom partnerships, creating job assignments based on student strengths, and planning for engaging classwork linked to multiple intelligences. I realize some circumstances warrant bringing an administrator into the conversation; I always exhausted all options, which included parent communications and previously mentioned strategies-- so a write-up was not my first, second, or even third choice.

Power to Promote

I try not to live in it, but I do. Do you know that I still can’t forgive my teacher for failing me? She told me that she would make an example out of me because I was a class clown. I was taking her advanced math in the 8th grade; so, that showed my potential, but she wouldn’t teach me. She wouldn’t answer my questions. My classmates remember her saying that out loud to me. I didn’t have a math problem. I passed every math class after that, but I would say that math is my worst subject. I have to leave that moment, but it drives me. 

Through social media, I was able to respond to Thomal’s message. He found his way back to the safe space I created years ago. Slow tears rolled down the grown man’s face as he unveiled his 8th-grade scars that followed him throughout high school and into his adult life.  This is probably the statement that encouraged me to highlight this conversation. Thomal knows he played a role in this negative outcome because of his actions, but it was the teacher’s responsibility to use appropriate strategies to constructively address his behavior. Thomal acknowledged he was still holding on to the hurt caused by this teacher’s decision to make an example of him in front of his peers and to use the power of the pen in a negative way, which resulted in his failing the class.  My decision to talk to a kid who was asking for help in all the wrong ways countered the rejection he had experienced the year before.

This direct message from my former student is a direct message to all teachers. We must  find ways to highlight students’ strengths and engage them by addressing cultural interests, providing avenues for collaboration and authentic problem-solving connected to content. Remember, there is power in every decision we make, and whether good or bad, these moments turn into memories students will keep for life.

Dr. Stacey Donaldson is a 2010 NSTOY from Mississippi. Donaldson is a teacher leader and mentor at heart and is a 23-year educator. She currently serves as the Director of Instructional Design at Belhaven University.  Donaldson finds joy in tutoring struggling readers and mentoring teacher leaders as they pursue National Board Certification. She serves on Mississippi NBCT Network’s executive committee and is also a National Board Network of Accomplished Minoritized Educators (NAME) board member.


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