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Greg Dahlstrom


Photo of reading at celebration

A Teacher’s Protocol


Let us open this work with the first word our students should see, the first word they should hear, as a semester begins.


On the blackboard, on the white board, on the Smart Board, projected onto the overhead screen as part of a PowerPoint slide show, photocopied and placed at each student’s seat―through any of these media or through another medium entirely, let us make sure that, as our students enter class the first day, this word is the first they see.


Let us make sure that it’s the first word they hear, as well. Before we talk about assignments and reading lists, before we distribute the syllabus, before we outline our expectations or talk about our grading policies or mention late work, let us utter this word.

Let us then move beyond that first day as, each and every day, we strive to convey the message that our students are important, that their presence in class is appreciated, that their work is valued. They should view our classes as havens, our students should. They should view our classrooms as “safe spaces,” as places where they can learn, where they can grow, where they can explore, where they can take risks, and where they can do all of this without the fear of ridicule, of embarrassment, of humiliation. Every life is precious and every person deserves the respect and the esteem that are due a fellow being. Through our words and through our deeds, let us convey to our students the message that we value them.

How terrible it is, how humiliating it can be, when we are devalued. At no time was this made clearer to me than in my first years as a teacher. I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English to French-speaking students in central Africa. Posted to a remote village, I lived without electricity and without running water as I taught middle school- and high school-aged youngsters to express themselves in a foreign language. Life was primitive. The students sat on wooden benches and wrote sentences into little “copy books.” Near the school, on crop land planted with sorghum, men worked the fields with hand-held tools as their wives hauled water from distant wells. Toward the middle of my two-year stint, in need of some time off, I made my way toward the capitol city, there to celebrate my home land’s Independence Day with a host of my fellow volunteers. It took me three days to travel some 1500 km to the capitol. Dirt roads had turned to mud, buses broke down, trains failed to run on schedule. Still, though, it all seemed worth the trouble. Life in the capitol was good. For the first time in months I enjoyed hot showers, cold soft drinks, well-balanced meals, and the company of my fellow volunteers. Life was very good, indeed.

On the Fourth of July I thought I’d head out to the American Club. Cheeseburgers, French fries, Snickers bars, Dr. Pepper―these items and more, unheard of elsewhere in the country, could be found in abundant supply at this place. They could be found right along with tennis courts, a swimming pool and lots and lots of classic American movies. For those otherwise immersed in a foreign culture, the American Club could serve as an oasis. What better place to celebrate the Fourth of July? I went there and, spotting a pair of fellow volunteers, cheerfully took a place at their table.

Also seated at that table were the Peace Corps Country Director, two of his assistants and those individuals’ spouses. The Country Director turned to me and asked, “And, how are you, young man?”

I told him I was fine.

“You’ll have to remind me of your name,” he said.

I did so.

“And where are you posted?” he asked.

I let him know.

“I can’t say as I’ve ventured out quite that far,” he said. “So, how are things going for you?”

How should I answer him? There was so much that I could relate about my work in that distant village. Where to start? I said, “Well –“

“That’s great,” the Country Director said. “That’s just great. It’s always good to hear that things are going well for my people. Have yourself a fine day, young man.”

He broke off, then, into some polite conversation with his assistants. I did the same in conversation with my fellow volunteers.

Present at the American Club that day was the American Ambassador. Soon, as that diplomat made his way from a distant table to a microphone, our table quieted. In recognition of the day, the Ambassador made some brief remarks. He mentioned George Washington. He mentioned Valley Forge. He came over to our table, then, the Ambassador did. He came over to our table, he shook hands with the Peace Corps Country Director, and then he shook hands, in turn, with each individual whom the director introduced.

Is there some special clause in the foreign service protocol? Is there a clause that dictates that, in social settings, only individuals above a given pay grade be recognized? This was the question I now asked myself. Was a Peace Corps Country Director, were his assistants, were their spouses, to be recognized, and were all others―mere volunteers, for example―to be ignored? Such a clause must have existed. So it seemed to me since, when the Ambassador stopped at our table, the Country Director introduced each and every person there save the lowly volunteers. The Ambassador shook hands with everyone save the three of us. That diplomat then passed a brief while at our table, chatting with the Country Director’s assistants, making a few jokes. I paid little attention. I was more interested in our Country Director. What mindset, what world view was it that caused a person utterly to ignore three figures at a table of eight? In what policy statement was it set forth that nearly half of an assembled group was completely to be ignored? I couldn’t fathom it.

Dismissive: this adjective best describes the glare that soon followed. I’d been observing our Country Director, and soon he’d noticed it. He’d noticed it and, as the Ambassador continued his banter, the Country Director’s eyes locked with mine. Those eyes narrowed, then. The Country Director’s eyes narrowed, his chin thrust forward and his eyebrows rose in an utterly dismissive glare. I glanced away. I allowed my gaze to scan a landscape filled with mud-brick huts and thatch roofs. Off in the distance, a woman carried water from a well.

“We’ve just been blown off by a political appointee.”

These were the words of one of my fellow volunteers. Approaching him after our meal, I asked him if he’d noticed our Country Director’s slight.

“Of course I noticed it.”

I asked him what he made of it.

“I won’t be losing any sleep over it. I’d lay odds the Ambassador forgot the names he did hear two seconds after he heard them.” My friend said this and then he added, “Blow it off. These guys just run by a different set of rules.”
A different set of rules. A special protocol. The whole scene appalled me. It appalled me and it led me to make a vow. Never, I vowed, never would I treat people with such disregard. I would create a protocol of my own. According to that protocol everyone I met, everyone I interacted with―everyone―would be treated by me with the respect that is due a fellow human being.

Three decades and half a dozen teaching positions later I find that I am fully able to fulfill that vow. I teach developmental reading and writing at a community college in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota. My students come from varied backgrounds. Many have enrolled in college straight out of high school. Many others are "second-chancers," students who made poor choices in their youth―students who slipped into drug or alcohol addiction, who spent time in prison, who conceived children in their late-teens and missed out on the college experiences so many of their age-peers enjoyed. They have matured, my students have. They're recovering from their addictions, they've adopted law-abiding lifestyles and, if they are mothers, they are now mothers to school-aged children. They want something special out of life and they know that a college degree can help them achieve that something. They have enrolled in college and they are determined to make their college experience a successful one.  

I am determined to help them do so. I admire my students. For the choices they are making now, and for the people they desire to be, I admire them very much, indeed. I admire them and I enjoy getting to know them. Before class, after class, on the walk between classes―in all of these settings I hear their questions, their concerns, their observations, their impressions. In one-on-one conferences I hear their stories. Over coffee, over tea, over soft drinks, we chat, we review their work, we get to know each other. By certain protocols, who we are and what we are doing in these conferences would not be valued a bit. But by our own, human protocol―well, that’s another matter entirely. I am enriched by these interactions. I hope that my students are enriched, as well.

Let us approach all of our students with a special, learner-centered protocol. Such a protocol can result in a rich learning experience. And it all starts with one simple word―“Welcome!”