The Power of a Teacher | Adam Saenz | TEDxYale

something happened to me on Monday August 25th 2008 that was so significant for me it literally changed the course of my career that day was my first day ever as a real live substitute teacher now since I'm a licensed psychologist I know the best way to heal from a traumatic event is to talk about it there's so much I could tell you about what an absolute train wreck that day was but let me give you some of the lowlights so my method for behavior management for this classroom an inner-city third grade classroom was that I was going to write their names on the board you know surely that would put the fear of God in them as if right so 10 minutes before lunch I'm trying to make this big dramatic point to the kids about how bad their behavior was and how disappointed the teacher was going to be and I said you know what's really sad I said in ten minutes we're about to go to lunch and let me just check so I start counting names da da da da da I said 28 of you were going to be stuck in here with me at recess this little girl in the back of the classroom she raised her hand sir there are only 22 kids in this classroom and it was just stupid stuff like that all day long it was a master's workshop and how not to lead a classroom so finally we get through the day the last bell rings the kids are walking out and that sure enough the last kid to leave the classroom was the one that had been riding me the hardest all day long his goal that day was to make me cry I know it so just before he gets to the door he stops and he turns and he looks at me and he says hey dr. Stein's you're pretty cool man are you going to be my teacher again tomorrow dude I looked at kids straight in the eye said oh sweet God I hope not I got through the afternoon I went home you know that saying that a picture is worth a thousand words a couple days later I found this picture and I said oh my gosh this picture captures my first day as a substitute teacher I'm that guy and this is that third-grade class just squatting the collective rear end of their bad behavior on my skills you can see who's coming out on top so what I do is a psychologist in school is a big part of what I do is I consult with teachers so teachers that are teaching children with academic and behavioral issues I coach them and I started thinking about I said you know what I do all this time teaching teachers but I've never taught in a classroom myself and so I started to to teaching because I wanted just a taste of what it's like to actually be in a classroom to see if that in any way change would I believe that like the recommendations that I was making or what I believe in theory or in practice about how to intervene with children and let me tell you something the first light bulb that went off for me after that very first day of substitute teaching was this hey Adam guess what big guy it doesn't matter how many degrees you have it doesn't matter where you got them from it doesn't matter what you think you know about education unless you've actually taught in a classroom day-in day-out and done the work there is no way you will ever ever understand how incredibly demanding and challenging that vocation is and it was a huge moment of insight for me and what happened was I was overwhelmed with this sense of admiration for educators for men and women across the country that are in classrooms everywhere just flat-out getting it done do an amazing job overwhelmed at how incredible that is and then what happened was that feeling of being overwhelmed it sort of shifted into one of curiosity and I got intensely curious about about this thing I was wondering how do you get good at that thing called teaching number one and number two how do you get good at it and stay good at it when data showed that about half the teachers teaching in schools now will be employed in another profession in five years so for those of us who work in education we we go to so many conferences and workshops about the how of Education the where the what the wind but I was curious about the why the why of education because I know that whenever we engage a significant task if we enter it with the right why the what the where the wind how that usually falls into place so I started researching what are the psychological variables that drive vocational satisfaction for educators and and the point that I want to share the idea that I want to share today is this when we in education when we enter into that vocation from the right why we posture ourselves and poise ourselves to make the kind of life impacting relationships that have the power to change the future so what I want to do is I want to share a couple of case studies with you and I think these case studies will do more to illustrate my point than me talking through my research and through data so the boy on the left is a sixth-grade boy his name is Lou the girl on the right is a fourth-grade girl her name is Lauren let's talk about Lou sixth-grade boy Hispanic male low socioeconomic home he's got a single uninvolved parent history of truancy history of interaction with the legal system he's got an undiagnosed depression and he's using street drugs to self-medicate now if you're a classroom teacher and you have this kid in your classroom this is the kid that will make you sit out in the parking lot on your campus and have an existential crisis this is the kid that will make you sit out in February when the snows piled that high and say do I really want to walk the two hundred yards into that building because I didn't sleep well last night but I guarantee you Lou slept like a baby and he's going to be loaded for bear and ready for me and then you start thinking you know like they don't pay me enough for this why am I doing this and all that goes on and if you have this kid in your classroom he will wear you out and if you have this kid in your classroom and he doesn't wear you out I would say one of two things is true of you either you're a superhero or you're in just a little bit of denial that's this kid well this kid actually is not in sixth grade anymore of all things this little stinker grew up and became a licensed psychologist and that's what he looks like today I was that kid I was that kid let me share my story with you the setting is the early 1980s the location is the Lower Rio Grande Valley the very southern tip very close to the border of Mexico 95% Hispanic and I remember I remember the look on my mom's face the first time she had to come to juvenile to pick me up when I was arrested to anger in her face and the first words out of her mouth when she saw me was what are you doing here what are you doing here and that question it wasn't a question of action what am I doing here while I'm sitting in this chair with these handcuffs digging into my wrist wondering what the next 48 hours of my life will look like that's not the question she was asking it was a question of identity and I remember thinking what an absolutely stupid question to ask me are you kidding me what am I doing here I Know Who I am I'm Lu signs it's my job to make your life hell I'm never going to learn I can't make it through a single day what am I doing here this is who I am this is where I belong this is what I do well my mom Child Protective Services was never involved with my family but my mom could read the writing on the wall and she voluntarily relinquished guardianship to me and I went to live with this family several hundred miles away and what was then this tiny rice farming town out in the sticks out in the suburbs of Houston called Katy Texas and I ended up doing pretty well at Katy junior high and Katy high school but by my senior year I started to get depressed again because the family that I lived with they said sudden we love you but but you're 18 and when you graduate you're on your own and I was terrified because I knew no no no no no when you take all the structure away from me I knew that I still had demons on the inside and they were going to come and get me well sure enough I graduated from Katy High School on the bottom fell out I ended up in San Antonio I was working as a dishwasher I met this guy he'd let me sleep on the delivering living room floor of his tiny one-bedroom apartment my depression was out of control I was using drugs again to self-medicate street drugs and and I wasn't suicidal but I remember thinking like are you kidding me I'm 19 years old I'm working as a dishwasher I'm using drugs and I've got another 60 years of this to look forward to what's the point well I remember coming home from work one morning it was about 3:00 a.m. very early and I was really really depressed and really really overwhelmed and so I pulled out my journal I just needed to get into my journal to write and as I pulled out my journal in my journal box I saw these two letters and I couldn't figure out what they were but when I found them I was blown away at what they were they were two letters that had been written to me by two of my teachers my senior year at Katie high school and this is part of what one of those letters said you're extremely talented and intelligent but most importantly you have a good heart I know you will use your talents to help your fellow man and that's the most satisfying life a person can have and it was signed by my English teacher Joe Ella Exley it said some other things but that's what jumped out put it away I pulled out the second letter and this is part of what that letter said don't quit writing especially in your journal someday it may be the basis for your book you have insight sensitivity intelligence and maturity beyond your tender years keep being you you're a special person and it was signed by my creative writing teacher Polly McRoberts and those words absolutely haunted me they just haunted me because I said wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute I know who I am I know who I am I'm Lou sines I'm a 19-year old version of that sixth grade kid that's never going to make it through a single day whose job it is to make your life hell who's never going to learn I'm using drugs I'm depressed out of my mind I'm working as a dishwasher I have no future I Know Who I am but here were these two women for whom I had tremendous respect that were disagreeing with me and because of who they were in the kind of life they lived in front of us in the classroom I couldn't just blow them off I couldn't just say well you don't know what you're talking about and because of their character and their integrity I knew they would not have written these words to me if they didn't absolutely believe it so back and forth I went back and forth who's right about me who's right about me so Farley I said you know what I need to put this theory to the test I need to figure out who I am I know what I'm gonna do I'm gonna sign up for a college course I had no idea how to do that neither my parents went to college but I went to the University of Texas at San Antonio I was accepted the first course I had to take was introduction to English and I said oh thank God because if I have any hope of passing a college course it's got to be this English course well at the end of the semester I remember I got my grade and I passed it couldn't believe it couldn't believe it and so I started thinking you know what maybe mrs. Robertson mrs. actually were right about me maybe they could see something in me that I couldn't see in myself on the one hand on the other hand maybe this was just a clerical error for all I know she'd probably take another course so I took another course that spring and I passed it couldn't believe it of course that summer then two then three and just kept going a little at a time and then just before I turn 27 years old I graduated with my undergraduate degree in English never never never thought I was going to get a college degree I never did but there I had it and then I started thinking you know what they were right about me mrs. McRoberts and mrs. actually could see something in me that I couldn't see in myself and I said you know what I'm done being loo I'm done being that kid that's never going to make it through a single day whose job it is to make your life hell who's never going to learn and then just psychologically as a way to give myself permission to be somebody else I said I'm going to start going by my first name now I'm going to be Adam and maybe Adam can live into this life that those two teachers saw in him so many years ago well I started my master's program and then I started my own therapy to work through my own past my own trauma in my own abuse finish my master's and then I applied for a PhD in school psychology at Texas A&M and then the whole thing came full circle in it was March of 2001 I remember I was sitting in Logan Airport I was finishing my internship at Boston Children's Hospital under a fellowship appointment to Harvard and I was scheduled to graduate in May and I had applied for postdocs at Brown Yale in Columbia and Brown was my top choice so I'm sitting in the airport at Logan waiting for my flight I was going to fly back to College Station to defend my dissertation and my cell phone rang I said hello this is Adam and then a voice on the other end of the phone said Adam hey this is dr. J Reeve at Brown Medical School listen we got your paperwork we really enjoyed our interview with you and I'm calling to offer you a fellowship appointment here at the medical school and I was just thrilled I mean this is my top choice right so as he's talking about the research and the clinical work I had an incoming phone call and I didn't recognize the number and I said I said dr. vo I said I'm so sorry to ask but do you mind if I put you on hold I have a call coming and I think I need to take it no problem click over hello this is Adam then a voice on the other end said Adam hey this is dr. Chuck Santa slow at Yale Medical School listen we got your paperwork we really enjoyed our interview with you and I'm calling to offer you a fellowship appointment to Yale I said dude I got brown on the other line I don't have to call you back click took the position at Brown hung up and then it hit me in that moment it hit me I realized Adam you can write your own ticket you are qualified to do what you love to do which is practice psychology at any Hospital any university any school district in the country and you're bilingual and I realized in that moment I wouldn't have those options if I didn't have a PhD in psychology and I never would have had the courage to apply for a PhD if I hadn't finished my master's degree and I never could have applied for a master's degree if I hadn't first finished my undergraduate degree and you know what I know that I know that I know that i know that i never would have stepped out for that first degree had educators not spoken truth into my life about Who I am and my identity and I'll tell you right now I will be forever grateful to mrs. McRoberts and mrs. Exley for the moment of impact they had in my life if you ever happen to be in Katy Texas by the way and you're driving down West timer Parkway you're going to see that building and that's Joella Exley Elementary and if you ever happen to be driving down Fran's Road you're going to see that building and that's Polly McRoberts Elementary and I am so proud of Katie ISD for honoring these two women now let's go to my second case study this was Lauren Garcia and when I look at that picture of Lauren her smile doesn't convince me and when I think about who she was at this time I think what does she have to smile about she had been in protective services the custody of protective services for two years already in her young life she had experienced things that no human being should ever have to experience let alone a little girl and then we sit her down in front of a camera and tell her to say cheese well what's there to smile about well what happens with children that are in protective services in custody when they're 10 11 12 years old if they haven't been adopted by that time statistically speaking the likelihood that they will ever be adopted it drops dramatically well what happened with Lauren was she ended up in court but with her the circumstances were a little bit different it wasn't juvenile court it was an adoption court because the family read her file and they said we know exactly what we're signing up for and in March of 2010 Lauren Garcia became Lauren signs and that was the day that my wife and I adopted her and there we are on our adoption day with my biological children and that was a very very special day in our family that was on a Tuesday that very next Saturday Lauren and I had our very first daddy-daughter and there we are getting ready for the daddy-daughter dance and she was so cute I remember I said all right sweet girl you've got new shoes you've got a new dress you're beautiful I said you know what before the dance I'm going to take you out to dinner anywhere you want to go and man her little eyes just lit up are you kidding me anywhere I want to go sit anywhere you want to go I don't care you name is steak seafood chick filet so there we were a chick-fil-a in our formalwear waffle fries and chicken sandwiches it was the bomb so after dinner you know we ended up at the dance and we were still getting to know each other at that point she'd only been with us for about six months and I remembered to dance I just wanted to make one point of connection with her you know and so when we got there and we settled in I remember I reached over and I held her hand and I took this little picture and I said sweet girl there are two things you need to understand about being my girl and about being family I said the first is this you do not make the rules and our family mom and I make the rules and your job is to follow them there's not a question mark at the end of that statement there's not a comma at the end of that statement there is a period at the end of that statement do you understand me and she said yes sir I do and I said very good here's the second thing you need to know I said do you know what my job is and she said yes sir your job is to make sure that I follow the rules and I smiled at her and I said oh no no no sweet girl I said listen to me my job is to lay my life down for you my job is to protect you my job is to provide for you my job is to guide you I said sweetheart you don't understand this about yourself yet but you are the most precious thing on the planet there is no pile of money anywhere on the planet more valuable than you're not even in the same category and and my job is to lay my life down for you so that you will understand your value because when you understand your value you will live as though your choices matter you will understand that just like me you have a calling you have a purpose you have a destiny you are on this planet for a reason and then in a moment of incredible insight she looked at me and she said dad I don't think I've ever been loved that way before and I remember I smiled at her and I said a host sweet girl sweet girl believe it or not I know exactly how you feel I said let me tell you a story about a kid I used to know his name was Lou and I shared my story with her and it was a powerful powerful moment in our relationship and the reason I share my daughter as a case study is just to underscore the generational power that educators have in the classroom when we as educators make that connection with those students we change every heartbeat they have to the grave and when I think about the men and women that poured into my life the educators like mrs. McRoberts and mrs. Exley that poured it into my life when quite frankly I was not the best version of myself how do I look at a little girl like this and not bring her into my life that is the power of an educator that is the power of a teacher so let me conclude with this I'm going to answer that question that my mom asked me when I was in juvenile sitting in handcuffs what are you doing here what am I doing here you know what by God's grace I Know Who I am today my name is dr. Adam Lewis signs and I'm here on this stage today because my life was impacted by the power of a teacher thank you

29 thoughts on “The Power of a Teacher | Adam Saenz | TEDxYale”

  1. I really appreciate that you went into substitute teaching to see if your advice made sense when talking to teachers. I wish everyone in education had a minimum of one year of teaching experience before they try to tell you how to do your job, make decisions that effect teachers and students, or criticize you. Unless you’ve done the work, nobody can truly understand the taxing work we do day in and day out! So, thank you for acknowledging this and sharing your story!

  2. This just affirmed so much for me – I related to everything you were saying and I love you for that. Thankyou

  3. Teary eyed as I watch the video. Thank you sir. I expected some sort of academics but I found love. May you touch more lives with your love.

  4. Adam I am so proud of you. I am not sure you remember me. I am now teaching at TAMU in theTLAC-teaching junior level students classroom management. I plan to use you video in my class. Take care. Dena Frieda

  5. Very moving about what teachers do on different levels without the return of a thank you. You never know when a teacher will make an impact on a daily basis.

  6. That was unbelievable. Moving, inspiring and motivating. I'm a teacher myself and this has really got me going ! Thanks a lot.

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