As a teacher newer to the profession, I recognize and accept that I have a lot to learn. I guess it is a good thing that learning has been a friend of mine for decades. Learning has been inspiring but often challenging. There are times when I have felt that a task was simply impossible… until it wasn’t and that “Aha!” moment hit me. Combined with personal reflection, learning can help me grow as an educator, husband, father, leader, and human being. The learning process is a journey. A procession of steps towards a goal that is ever changing or redefining itself as my understanding and personal schema absorb and interpret the new information. One such journey began on a fateful day in the fall of 2016.
Many teachers dread professional development days during the school year. Often they are dictated by the administration at the school or by the district and can be seen as taking up precious time that could be used for planning, grading, communication with fellow teachers or families, and a multitude of other tasks that teachers juggle each and every day. However, this professional development day was different. I was excited about this one. We had a guest speaker coming in whose background was character education and the whole child: John Norlin. When John began his training, I remember being engaged and connected to his stories and message that character education was just as, if not more, important in schools today. His words stuck with me. I literally wrote in my notes, “This is my goal! I want to develop this culture at Liberty.” I remember leaving that training energized and inspired to do great things at my school but I needed guidance on what to do next.
What’s worse, all the time we are working overtime to please everyone we ignore our own needs and instead help others with theirs. We might ignore our own negative feelings, seeing it as our responsibility to be the “fun” person that everyone loves to be around or, on the other side, only allow ourselves to feel as happy as those around us. We heap responsibility for others’ emotions upon our own shoulders, desperately hoping that in return they will grant us the approval we so desperately need. Yet all this work we put in, all this time and energy, can come crashing down around us with a single angry word, or even a glare from across the room. Such blows can cause us to lash out and hurt those we care about as our instinctive fight-or-flight brain scrambles to preserve our lie, our illusion of identity based on others.
In my quest for learning and self-improvement, I found an amazing opportunity to learn more from John Norlin and the CharacterStrong team. I signed up for the first ever CharacterStrong Educator Summit in January of 2017. I had been filled with so many ideas and a renewed passion from John’s two hour training; I could not imagine being a part of a two-day training! During this process, I learned so many things about myself. I learned that my habit development for teaching character at my school was conscious and unskilled. I knew what I wanted to do but I lacked the practice to be good at it. My understanding of the variations of love expanded as I learned about the Greek words for love and their connections within my life. I saw a lot of work to be done in all facets of my life in terms of character and relationships. What if I didn’t make changes in my life? What if I waited to ask the question that needed to be asked until it was too late? What if, like in John’s story, I lived most my life knowing I gave bad hugs?
One of the most challenging parts of the two-day training was the character dares. Yet, as my grandfather used to say, anything worth taking your time doing is worth doing right. These dares were also the most impactful and resonating moments of the weekend. One of the character dares tasked us with identifying someone in our lives who has influenced us and write out 3-5 traits we learned from them. I immediately thought of my father. My father, who worked two jobs when I was a boy to make sure my family was taken care of. My father, who coached my basketball teams all through elementary school even though he was busy. My father who taught me how to work hard, dedicate yourself to something, and never give up. He is likely the most influential person in my life. Therefore, I wrote down things about him like how he taught me respect, commitment, and honesty. It filled me with warmth to write about my dad, who had done so much for me in my life.
As the training moved on, we were asked to return to that influential person we wrote about, and write out a letter to them about their influence on our lives. Light music played in the background as the 90+ people in the school cafeteria space were quietly reflecting on how to properly thank these people in our lives. I remember writing and rewriting this message to my dad, thanking him for countless moments that I could never repay, and describing the ways that he helped make me the person I grew up to be. So many memories and moments flooded back to me during this time. I vividly remember my father returning home from his graveyard shift, after having already worked his other job during the day, and there I was walking out in my pajamas asking him if he would watch Looney Toons with me. After two shifts, and little sleep, my dad agreed to sit with me and be a part of my Saturday morning experience. I remember the time that I was determined to make my own remote control so that I would be in charge of the TV. When I finished my cardboard remote, I was astounded as I was able to change the channels and the volume. In reality, my dad sat behind me and watched me push the buttons as he mimicked what I was doing on the actual remote. I didn’t find this out until years later. So many stories to share…
On day two of the training, the character dare process truly changed my life. While I can say that my father and I have always been close, for years we have been more like buddies than father and son (mentor and apprentice). When my parents divorced, the relationship between my dad and I changed. Our conversations felt superficial, our discussions were not in depth, and the connectedness we once shared had waned. This was why the final step in the character dare process was so meaningful to me. John Norlin tasked us with calling the person who had impacted us and reading them our letter. He gave us a chance to break apart and make these calls, if we chose to do so, and I resolved to see the process through to the end. When I called up my dad, I was shaking with nervousness. I listened to the phone ring and I was afraid my dad would hear my heart pounding in my chest when he answered the phone.
“Hey dad it’s me.”
“Hey buddy! How’s the training?”
“It has been amazing so far. Some of the activities we are doing are truly powerful.” I paused to gather myself before speaking.
“Hey dad? Do you mind if I share something with you?” I said nervously.
“Sure. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” He asked as he started to catch on to my tone.
“I think it is a good thing. It’s a letter I wrote to you that I’d like to read to you now… I’m going to try and get through it without crying.”
I proceeded to read him my letter. I got choked up multiple times but soldiered on. Tears streamed freely down my face as I shared so many emotions with him that I had kept pent up for so very long. I could hear my father crying on the other end, at a loss for words, as he listened. My father is a large man. A tough man. I have maybe seen him cry three times in my life. As I finished reading, we both took some time to compose ourselves and my dad was the first to speak.
“Wow son. I don’t know if I deserve all of that. Thank you so very much for sharing with me. Let me tell you what I think of you…”
Another round of sharing and even more tears as my dad, my mentor, my advisor, my coach, my source of wisdom, but also my cheerleader, my supporter, my fan, and my friend opened up to me after so long. He shared how I have impacted his life and how I have been an idol for him. I remember ending that conversation with cheeks still wet but a smile on face. As I walked back into the room with the other professionals, I ran into John as he was preparing to bring everyone back together.
I took a deep breath and told him, “That was rough.”
John replied, “It was worth it though wasn’t it? You’re beaming right now.”
“It was absolutely worth it.”
The character dare process has very literally changed my life and my relationship with my dad. I believe in the character dare process. I believe it can be impactful if you choose to ask the questions that do not get asked. Oh, and the letter that I wrote my father? He framed it and hung it in his home. You cannot tell me that that was not impactful. Trust the process.
David Volke has spent the last six years in the Camas School District, teaching Humanities, ASB, and Leadership. He has had the luxury of serving as a Climate and Culture TOSA for his building as well as being a basketball coach and intramural advisor. He is a WACA certified leadership advisor, teacher counselor at AWSL's Camp Columbia, presenter for CharacterStrong, and was the 2019 Camas School District Educator of the Year. David lived and taught in Honduras at an international high school for two years after completing his master's degree at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Lisa (a math teacher) have two wonderful daughters, Natalie and Stephanie. David wholeheartedly believes in teaching the whole child. He also believes that the best service we can be doing for our kids is to make them feel loved, respected, safe, and welcome.