Three months ago, I lost my brother, Kevin Barkley. It still doesn’t seem real. I miss him at the strangest times. The other day, I was making scrambled eggs, and they were really fluffy (my eggs are never fluffy), and he popped into my head. Kevin always made the fluffiest scrambled eggs.
Over the last few months, I have done a lot of reflecting about what he taught me. His lessons spanned from teaching me the firing order of a small block Chevy to always being there for others. But perhaps his most important lesson, the one that will stay with me forever, was what it means to be an educator.
My brother spent 28 years in the automotive industry. His experience of “turning wrenches” gave him plenty of knowledge to move into his final career as an automotive instructor. In the days following Kevin’s death, I spoke with many of his students and co-workers. Through these conversations, I learned what an impact my brother had, and I started reflecting on my role as an educator. What is my role with high school students as they travel through the major life decision of choosing a college? How do I impact their lives? What does it mean to me to be an educator? Here are the lessons I learned from my brother that, moving forward, I will apply to my career as an educator.
Creating self-awareness: Kevin taught his students to look at themselves and figure out their capabilities. Teaching students to ask the question, “who am I” is the foundation for any curriculum. It is the first step towards their future. Whenever I have a student who feels a bit lost, I will always direct them back to this foundation.
Listening: Being an educator starts with building a relationship with your students. Connecting with people is what my brother did best, and I know it began with his listening skills. Kevin had the ability to really focus on who he was talking to. As an educator, when I meet with a student, I remind myself that this is the first time a student is learning about the college process. They have never done this before, even though I have been through it hundreds of times. I imagine it was the same for my brother, and he had the patience to be in the moment, listening to questions as he taught an automotive skill he’d done a thousand times. It is in these moments, with patience and attention, that relationships are built.
Supporting: An educator is a supporter but not necessarily a fixer. My brother did everything he could to support his students so they could reach their potential. He knew he couldn’t fix their life circumstances, but Kevin did what he could to make sure they could focus while learning. He’d help them find temporary housing or bring food to class so they wouldn’t be hungry. He knew that educating them was the long-term solution to their futures, so he supported them in every way so they could reach their potential. As I learned this about my brother, I thought about supporting and challenging my students but not doing things for them. I want to help them decide where to attend college but not make the decision for them. My job is to provide my students with information and to teach them to ask questions. I want to give them the foundation they need to plan their futures.
Teaching Accountability: Holding a student accountable is another critical role of an educator. If one of Kevin’s students did not show up for class, he’d pick up the phone and call them. If one of my students misses a meeting, I reach out to see where they are. Being present and doing the work is the best way for students to move forward. Yes, students will make mistakes. They will show up unprepared; they may even waste your time, but finding the right way to help them acknowledge their mistakes and, more importantly, move on from them, is an essential role of an educator.
Building Skills: One of the most important things my brother did as an educator was to teach his students skills beyond his curriculum. He did more than teach how to fix cars, but he instilled in the important skill of looking at the big picture of their responsibility in ensuring the safety of others. He also made sure they knew how to network. He’d put them in touch with people to help them find a job or coach them through their next interview. From my brother, I learned that teaching students information is one thing but helping them learn how to use it is another. I never want just to get my student through the college process. I want to make sure they know the skills they need to thrive in college and beyond.
Shaping Human Beings: Several of my brother’s students said to me (repeatedly) that he made them the people they are today. Just take that in for a moment. I was struck by the quiet impact he had on so many lives. It made me think about what role I have in shaping human beings. What lessons am I instilling to make sure they will function in society and, better yet, make the world a better place? As an educator, I will think about the impact I can have on each student as a person.
My brother worked with a student population that was very different than the one I see daily, yet the impact he had, the lessons he taught, can be applied to so many different types of educators. Now when I am in a student meeting, I know he will pop into my head, reminding me not to answer questions for them or to let them off the hook too easily. His picture sits on my desk. It is my daily reminder of what a role an educator can have in shaping a human being. It is my reminder to strive to be the educator my brother was- and to always make fluffy scrambled eggs.