When Scott first invited me to contribute a post in response to “What Does Every Administrator Need from Teachers” I immediately thought about the “Seven Gifts of El Milagro” that I wrote about a few years ago. At Mueller Charter School (aka. “El Milagro”) there just seem to be some common attributes shared by our most effective teachers. In the long grind of the school year and the relentless escalation of demands imposed by No Child Left Behind, I have come to expect these seven attributes from all of our teachers: commitment, talent, innovation, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, resiliency, and compassion.
THE GIFT OF COMMITMENTThe first of the Seven Gifts is the Gift of Commitment; an ability and willingness to focus like a red laser on the battle at hand. A belief in the cause. We look for warriors, and not just in the poetic sense of the term. True warriors are relentless in their pursuit of the mission. Even in the face of personal loss and harm, they give of themselves. No excuses. No compromise.
THE GIFT OF TALENTWhile it would be nice to place a classic and complete teacher in every classroom, we have to settle for talented and inspiring and academically curious idealists. Our teachers have to have a strong, foundation in literacy and mathematical reasoning. They have to have that content knowledge.
But math and language arts content is not enough. Nor is science, social studies, physical education, and the visual and performing arts content. In between, who will make Yo-Yo Ma as real as Beyoncé? Who will inspire children to take a second microscopic look at a cricket’s wing and marvel at the intricate similarities that exist among living things? Who will explain how the same people who gave us Babylon, now give us Hamas? Who will teach children to sing with whatever voice God gave them…if not their teacher?
At El Milagro, our teachers must first be talented human beings if they are going to be talented teachers. And talent is formed from each individual’s unique amalgam of interest and curiosity, their personalities, their life experiences, their natural gifts. And, of course, their ability to translate their excitement and love for learning to others.
THE GIFT OF INNOVATIONThe grand metaphors of life do not escape the creative observer. Life, in and of itself, may very well be the metaphor. In the meantime, however, there are those whose minds can bend and accept ambiguity and change and chaos and the long rough ride. There is a flexibility in their mental constructs. They solve problems with a sense of humor. They are confident in their own efficacy.
We used to say that we were looking for people who were capable of “thinking outside the box” until thinking outside the box became its own confining metaphor. So now we are just looking for gifted innovators…people with imaginations, playful spirits, and an ability to create El Milagro from Mueller Charter School. We are looking for Picasso or George Lucas. We are looking for Andy Warhol to find something useful to do with a can of soup besides open it with a rusted kitchen tool. We are looking for Christo to drape Central Park in orange banners and photograph the tourists as they run through them—catching and consuming them as if they were snowflakes melting in their mouths for the first time.
A GIFT FOR COLLABORATIONWe are not the passengers. We are the crew. We row together or die in irons. There is no option for reclusive entrepreneurs concocting innovations in the broom closet. We share. We talk. We brainstorm and ask lots of questions that begin with “What if…” Our teachers communicate about their students’ progress on a regular basis. They collaborate with anyone who wants to play. And they all want to play.
THE GIFT OF INTRINSIC MOTIVATIONWe are looking for teachers who have the rare ability to find inspiration in their own magic; teachers who are driven only by a compulsion to serve. Indeed, if people are intrinsically driven to achieve greatness on behalf of others, and to be a part of a passionate force of change, there is simply no more powerful source of motivation. If we are truly committed to the success of every child…then nothing can motivate us but their success! Nothing. Not money, not fear of sanctions, nor a manager’s praise.
THE GIFT OF RESILIENCYOur teachers have to be resilient. That’s why we seek warriors who will not take “No” for an answer. Our teachers will not be denied. They fall and they rise up. They fall and they rise up. Their resilience is as much a part of El Milagro as anything else we do. We can’t promise much. But we can promise you will stumble and swear and agonize over the challenges: the mobility, the poverty, the ambiguity. The never-ending meetings and demands when you are sick and tired and buried and when you just want to hide out in your classroom and catch your breath.
And just when you arrive at your breaking point, in that moment when you discover that you cannot succeed at El Milagro unless you are resilient…you rise yet again. Bouncing back. Modeling persistence. While children all around you notice that the mysterious strength that they are drawing from their teacher somehow carries them—and they discover in themselves the strength to overcome anything.
THE GIFT OF COMPASSIONIn “A Love Poem for My Students”, Ms. Michel, one of my first grade teachers wrote of her compassion for her students. In part, it says:
I live to learn how to teachmy young people how to reachthe stars.
By far—they are the most blessed gift given to me.
Ms. Michel has many gifts as a teacher. But the ones that her students derive the most benefit from are her commitment… talent… innovation… collaboration… intrinsic motivation… resiliency… and compassion. The Seven Gifts.
She reminds me of the verse I once read from Exodus: “You are blessed. You are a blessing to others. You are a blessing to the world.”I suppose, in the end, that that is what I ask of teachers every day: to bring the seven gifts and be a blessing to the world.
Kevin Riley, Ed.D., is in his 11th year as the Executive Director of Mueller Charter School (El Milagro), in Chula Vista, California. His blog is called El Milagro Weblog.