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  • Jose Luis Navarro

Bows and Arrows: The Transformative Power of a Great Teacher

Where I’m standing now — 25+ years into a career in education — I know I didn’t get here by myself. And if you've chosen to be an educator, I bet you were lucky enough to have a teacher who shifted the trajectory of your life. That teacher, in their own way, communicated the message that every student needs to hear and believe: You are seen, you have value, and your presence here matters. Chances are that your teacher taught the sh*t out of their subject, too. For me, that was my junior high history teacher, Mr. McHarg.


While I was fortunate enough to have Mr. McHarg, not all of my teachers were changing kids’ lives for the better. In fact, plenty of them let me get away with a lot of crap. One of my junior high English teachers, for instance, was the exact opposite of what I needed at the time. She’d talk above us, deliver a lesson, and go back to her seat. Job done. If I just shut up and didn’t take over the class, she’d leave me alone. I knew I was smart; I knew I could learn. But not from her. She wasn’t a teacher. Kids can see who’s a real teacher from a mile away.


Mr. McHarg was the real deal. He taught kids, not lessons, with the kind of presence that made a kid like me want to watch and listen. And I didn’t want to listen to anybody! In 8th grade, my idea of an ideal afternoon was playing Atari and smoking weed. By 9th grade, when people asked, “Louie, what do you want to be when you get older?”, I answered, “A teacher.”

If You Aim at Nothing, You Hit It Every Time

Toward the end of my eighth grade year, me and my buddy Steve were like two human arrows shot blindly into the air. Stoned at lunch and looking for trouble, we decided to fill up milk cartons with sand and chuck them over an ivy-covered fence onto a busy street. The fence was so tall that we couldn’t see where our cartons were landing, but we could hear cars swerving. We thought this little game was hilarious — until someone snuck up on us, scaring us half to death. Steve took off, leaving me to face Mr. McHarg alone.


Mr. McHarg was a half-time dean of discipline, half-time Western Civ/history teacher. Probably in his late 40s, Mr. McHarg was a powerhouse in Dockers — 5'10", muscled, balding, and stern. He exuded gravitas. Mr. McHarg did what a teacher could never do today: he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. He yelled, “What are you doing? You’re better than this, man!” Nobody ever said I was better than anything.


He had heard the sand hit a car window and tires screeching as a car spun. He stunned me by telling me that if a pregnant woman got in a wreck and lost the baby due to my idiocy, I could be tried for murder. I never thought of that. Of course I didn’t! In that one statement, Mr. McHarg showed me where an aimless arrow could land.


Instead of taking me to the office and suspending me (which would have taken maybe all of 3 minutes of his time), he took me to his classroom for the remainder of the day.

The Power of Grace: How Mr. McHarg Corrected My Course

I don't know what struck me more: the fact that he didn't suspend me — or the fact that he did the same lesson masterfully 3 periods in a row.


I tried to lay my head down and sleep, but he wouldn’t allow it. After 40 years, I remember the well-crafted lesson; he compared the Trojan horse to the first settlers coming in to America, bearing gifts for and then killing Native Americans. He didn't use notes or videos, and he had total command of the room. I sobered up and paid attention. He was engaging, and he was a little silly. And I couldn’t help but be a bit enamored with his restrained physical strength. His sleeves were rolled up to reveal his athletic forearms.


This dude was grace embodied. Did I deserve to be punished for being high and endangering drivers’ lives on the other side of the wall? Yes. But he seemed to have a sense for what I needed and chose to follow his gut, not the rules. He made sure I was in his class the following year, which miraculously coincided with my dad coming back into my life.


That moment with Mr. McHarg was a turning point for me. The following year, I found myself in a different headspace. I watched him be fair and calm in the classroom and in the hallways when other teachers would have been reactive and punitive. Day in and day out, he showed me that an authority figure could use their power to work with kids instead of lording it over them. The language wasn’t around then, but Mr. McHarg, like my dad, had an instinct for Restorative Justice practices — which are a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy today.

Bows & Arrows: Our Moral Imperative as Teachers

After that critical day in 8th grade, Mr. Mc Harg would give me a playful wink when he saw me around school. He certainly never acted like he was my homie, and I admired him for it. He was simply a good man who was fair. And that just spoke volumes to me.


Many years later, I was leading a professional development on cooperative tolerance classrooms. I shared why I became a teacher, and I talked about Mr. McHarg. A woman raised her hand and told me he was a friend of hers, and he was dying. I went home and emailed him: Mr. McHarg, I graduated in 1986. I'm Jose Luis Navarro, now a National Board Certified Teacher. I wanted to let you know you're the reason I became a teacher.


I remember you, Louie, he replied. You had a great smile. I don't remember smiling much. I always had this f’ed up gap in my teeth, and I never wanted to smile. I remember how smart you were and how engaged you were in class. Shortly thereafter, Mr. McHarg passed away, and I’m so grateful I got a chance to say thank you to him.


I have a tattoo of a bow and arrow on my right forearm, a nod to these lines in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:


You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His

might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.


As educators, we carry the profound responsibility to guide and inspire our students — even if we can’t know the impact we make or don’t hear a “thank you.” It's our moral imperative to be that steady bow, launching young people toward their potential. But we're also the arrows, constantly learning and growing as we fulfill our calling. Let’s work together to create those transformative moments that change the trajectory of a student's life — and renew your passion for being a great teacher.

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