How to Change a Life

Kevin SteinWhen I was 16 years old, I applied for a job as a summer camp counsellor. For 11 years I had spent each and every one of my summers at Camp Tamarack. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than work at the camp that had played such an important part in my growing up. Before camp started, there was a two week intensive training session which included role plays with a licensed social worker, lessons on child development, workshops on drama activities, and first aid training. We were working from morning revelry at 6 AM, our breath white in the cold Michigan July mornings, to 10 PM at night. On the last night of the pre-camp training, the assistant director of the camp, gave the following speech:

In three weeks, the counsellors of the oldest kids at camp are going to be taking their bunks out on a canoe trip for 6 nights and 7 days. On the last mile of that trip, the river reverses course because of a dam. That last mile of canoeing is nearly impossible. 17 years ago, there was a young camper on the very same canoe trip. He was the smallest member of his bunk. He spent the whole summer trying just to keep up with the other kids who seemed so much bigger, so much stronger than him. During the canoe trip, he felt pretty useless. He paddled, but it felt like he was just dipping his paddle into the water. But when they got to the point where the river reversed its current, everything changed. He could feel the water pushing against his paddle. He could see the other campers struggling. So he paddled as hard as he could. And the canoe barely pushed its way through the water. When they finally reached the small stretch of beach where they landed the canoes, that small boy couldn’t feel his arms. He couldn’t even lift the paddle he was holding high enough to put it in the truck waiting to carry the canoes and paddles back to camp. At that moment, his counsellor came up to him and said, “You know, there was a moment when I thought we weren’t going to make it. I was just about to pull the canoe to the side of the river and have us carry the canoe the rest of the way. But then I looked at you, at how hard you were paddling, and I knew we would make it. And we did. We made it because of you. Now you might be wondering how I know so much about just what that small camper did and heard that day. I know because that camper was me. And it’s because of what my counsellor said to me 17 years ago that I’m standing up here in front of you today. It’s the reason I work at this camp. It changed my life. Each and every one of you can do the very same thing. Each one of you can change a child’s life. Not by empty praise, but by watching your campers carefully. By noticing when they do something that perhaps they never thought they could do. And at that moment, letting them know that you noticed it, too. That yes, they really did do something extraordinary. That’s what it means to be a camp counsellor.

When I heard that speech I realised that yes, that is what I wanted to do as well. I wanted to be there for campers and students and friends at just those moments, to have the chance to change a life. That was over 27 years ago. I still haven’t figured out how to always notice those moments. And I certainly haven’t found the right words to say each and every time I am lucky enough to notice them. But, on a warm summer night, the day before my campers came to put their trust in me for a summer, I took the first step to understanding what being a teacher might be all about.

The iTDi community is the richest and most diverse group of teachers I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with. I feel lucky to have had the chance to read the interviews in this issue, to learn more about the people who have helped the iTDi-ers become the gifted and unique teachers that I have come to know. And with this issue, we are also taking the conversation to the wider community. A number of iTDi bloggers have written ‘Outside Influences’ posts on their own blogs. I hope you will take a few moments to read and enjoy them as I have. And if you decide to join in the conversation and write a post for your own blog, let me know and I will added to the growing list of teachers sharing the stories of the people who have helped them help make iTDi the place where, ‘Together, we can change the future.’

‘Outside Influences’ blog posts from around the web:

Sandy Millin on the (heroic) women of her family

James Taylor on Carl Sagan

Vicky Loras on her first real teacher

Anne Hendler on why sometimes you need a turtle

Josette LeBlanc continues the conversation with her father

Theodora Pap on her personal champion, Kostas Michalakis

Me (again) on learning laughter



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Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein is a teacher and a program manager. He works at Clark Memorial International High School. His areas of professional interest include how to use standardized tests to help students develop autonomous learning skills and the effective use of literature in language teaching. Kevin's Blog:The Other Things Matter Twitter: @kevchanwow

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