Be a good role model — because your students ARE paying attention

In the past few weeks, two former students (both female) told me I had been a role model to them — but for different reasons.

One, who had suffered academic bullying in high school, said I had shown her how to be a strong woman. She emailed to tell me how she had finally stood up for herself when similar bullying happened in college.

The other told me that my tales of traveling to places like Russia, South Africa and Colombia had inspired her to pursue an adventurous life. She’s traveling the globe and freelancing right now, far surpassing my level of adventure.

Both comments made me incredibly happy, of course. It’s the best part of teaching, feeling like we’ve had a real impact on a child’s life, and not just academically.

They also made me wonder what kinds of inadvertent lessons we all teach our students every day — and whether we should pay more attention to them.

In ed school, they don’t teach you to be a role model. They teach you to plan lessons, build relationships, manage behavior, address equity concerns, assess student work and adopt fair grading practices. All important.

But they don’t tell you that students are observing you every second to see how you navigate conflict, how you manage anger and grief, what makes you laugh, how you find purpose in life.

If teenagers are surrounded by adults who complain about their jobs, grumble about their spouses (and kids), and voice cynicism about political leadership, it’s no wonder they develop a bleak outlook.

And if all they ever hear from us is how to “work hard,” “achieve” and “finish strong,” they start to believe that life is a constant treadmill, with nothing but more work to look forward to.

I’m not suggesting we adopt a pollyanna attitude in the classroom. Kids see through that easily, and then they just think adults are fake.

Instead, we need to actually build satisfying, albeit imperfect, lives for ourselves and be willing to share those with students. (My friend, Dave Stuart, actually writes frequently on this topic – and you can find his blog here.)

The teachers I remember best from high school did this.

Mrs. Duke, my favorite math teacher, sang with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her “free” time. I remember being so inspired by it that I begged my mom to take me to one of her performances. 

Mrs. Stopka, my Spanish teacher, traveled constantly to Spain and South America. I recently googled her and saw that now, well into retirement, she’s still volunteering as a medical translator in Chicago-area hospitals. Of course she is.

Unsurprising, I guess, that two of my role models were strong, adventurous women. I hope I can continue to share their lessons with my students.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom