You Are What You Teach

Steven LevyThe Teachers' LoungeLeave a Comment

“Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Jesus Christ)

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

I have just returned from spending ten days working with a school outside New Delhi. I had worked with them years ago on how to engage their students through meaningful, relevant curriculum, dynamic instructional protocols, and formative assessment practices. They had made some remarkable progress designing projects that challenged students to do real work that met the real needs of real people. For example, middle school students wanted to reduce automobile traffic by promoting cycling. The average pollution in their city is ten times worse than the worst day in Los Angeles. Through the study of the bicycle, they learned physics, math, history, and developed powerful communication skills in speaking, graphic design, reading and writing. They studied traffic management patterns and the strategies employed in other bicycle friendly cities, observed and collected data in multiple visits to traffic junctions in Gurgaon, interviewed stakeholders and prepared a feasibility study for the civic authorities.

They organized a campaign one Sunday morning where hundreds of students and families cycled into the heart of the city. Their efforts resulted in the city creating bike lanes and banning cars from 6:00 a.m. to noon every Sunday. Their plan for a car-free period where people reclaim the streets has spread all over India! If you have ever driven on the roads in India’s major cities, you can imagine how amazing it would be (actually, you probably can’t imagine – streets empty of diesel fuming trucks, endless morass of cars, and weaving motorbikes. The cows, however, are still there.) All started by a group of middle schoolers at the Heritage School!

But even more important than the curriculum, instruction and assessment practices we had explored was the process of identifying a set of values that described the “deepest hope” they had for their students. They created what they called their Dharma principles.

Returning six years later, I found the Dharma principles had not evolved as much as their curriculum. As in many schools, they lived in charts on the walls but not in the hearts of the students. In this recent visit, working on curriculum and instruction as well as school culture with over 120 teachers, many reported the most powerful learning experience for them came from reflecting on how they practiced the Dharma principles in their own lives – or didn’t. The first work of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin, and although this wasn’t a Christian school, I believe the Holy Spirit was all over us as we became vulnerable with one another, confessing our hypocrisies and owning our lack of authority to ask the students to do anything that we were not doing ourselves. You are what you teach. Your authority to ask anything from your students comes from your authentic practice of it yourself. You come back late from a break? That’s fine, just don’t ask your students to be on time to your class. You carry on side conversations while someone is speaking? Go ahead. You just can’t expect your students to pay attention to you.

When I was in the classroom, I always identified one problem I saw in my class and committed to never say anything about it to my students. I would recognize that problem in myself and with God’s grace, practice improving. One year it was a lack of gratitude. I turned off my radio on my 45-minute commute to school and paid attention to the diversity of God’s creation. Another was cutting corners. That year whenever I walked I intentionally performed a precise right-angle turn at every intersection. My favorite example was a problem I called “the selective application of the law.” We spent time at the beginning of the year creating a classroom constitution complete with our values and promises of how we would treat each other throughout the year. Everyone signed it. It was not that they ignored it, as some classes do, but rather they referred to it when it helped them get their way. If it did not support their case, they would find reasons that it did not apply in that particular circumstance. So instead of actually putting themselves under the “law,” they put the law in their back pocket to use as another tool to get their own way.

I was thinking about this as I was driving about 80 mph down Interstate 95 and saw the 55-mph speed limit sign. My first thought was “Everybody is going 80. I’m just in the flow of traffic.” Besides, it would be dangerous to slow down to 55! There it was! The exact voice I was condemning in my students, rationalizing how the law doesn’t really apply to me in this circumstance. Blinding flash of the obvious! My practice that year was driving the speed limit.

I was successful for about three months. But when I say successful, I don’t mean I immediately was able to drive the speed limit. It was more like driving 80, then remembering I made this commitment and easing my foot on the pedal. Gradually, the time between remembering my commitment and actually driving the speed limit diminished. I remember when I abandoned my effort. My family and I drove from Boston to West Palm Beach for Christmas vacation, and I got about as far as Storrs, CT when I announced to my family, “We are suspending our commitment to the speed limit!”

I didn’t recommit when we returned to Boston. But I think I got two really important benefits from my practice. First, compassion. It’s really hard to change, to break habits or to make them. I think of all the times I expected my students to simply change their behavior. “I’ve told you 10 times, and you still…!” Now, rather than me preaching from my high horse to students who needed to change, it was more like standing together with them in the low place, “It’s really hard to change, isn’t it? Let’s try and help each other practice.”

The second thing I got from my practice had something to do with authority. I’m not sure where authority comes from, why two teachers can say exactly the same thing and students will immediately respond to one and ignore the other. I think it has something to do with the degree to which we live the values we expect from our students. They know the difference when we “you should” them from a high place and when we “let’s practice” them together from the humble berth of a fellow sinner.

Give it a try. Find a problem your students have and let God show you where you have the same problem. Pray about it, find a practice that reminds you to pay attention. Don’t tell your students what you are doing –  just see if your practice makes a difference for your students. Use this stop, start, continue example to identify behaviors you would need to stop, start, and continue in order to grow in the Character of Christ.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy ( is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

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