I had to write an essay for the teacher of the year award, even though I wasn't chosen as Secondary Teacher of the Year, I am very, very proud of my essay. The most rewarding part of this whole process is how proud I made my Mother. She has been my role model and inspiration my whole life.
Love you Mom.
Teaching is hard. Anyone who tells you any different is either lying, fooling themselves or simply not doing it right. I could write about how technology is constantly changing, how teachers need to keep up with the changes, and how we are teaching to a more diverse student population. These things are all true, but I think most teachers try to do them either on their own, with their own money or through professional development. The message I would like to stress to teachers, both present and future is not to give up, be there and learn to forgive.
Most teachers come to the profession because they are “called”. Sure there is a small percentage that want holidays, weekends, and my personal favorite, “summers off”, but these few rarely make it a couple of years. The commitment and emotional energy is simply too much for them to handle. Teacher turn-over is at an all-time high all over the country.
You and I both know that our students are more “diverse”, this means not only culturally but, in my opinion more importantly, socio-economically. As teacher we may be the only people in that student’s life that truly believes in them. When we come into the profession, fresh-faced and eager, we have it in our heads how our classrooms are going to be perfect, all our students are going be anxious to learn and constantly engaged, be polite and always exceed our expectations. Then reality slaps us in the face and everything we learned in college goes straight out the window. Been there, done that, I even have the T-shirt.
We can be up on the latest technology and have all the coolest gadgets, but if we don’t form relationships and don’t give up on our students, it means little. I teach high school students, at an alternative high school. I have the students that just about everyone in their lives has given up on. These students have walls so high and so thick it would take a jackhammer a week to knock them down. So, how do I manage to get many of them to be successful? I don’t give up. So many of our students have defense mechanisms built up in them almost since birth. They are not going to let down the shields because some woman is nice to them. They will test you by doing and saying things to try to hurt you. Why? What did I do to deserve this? Nothing. They are not doing this because they hate you. They do these things to see if you are going to turn your back on them like almost everyone else in their lives. Prove them wrong, keep trying to chisel away, although some days it may feel like you are doing it with a plastic spoon. You must have your rules, boundaries and expectations, but temper it with kindness. Sometimes the kind word of encouragement from you may be the only one they will get all day, week or month. Most of us have no idea what kind of lives many of our students are born into. I know I didn’t. The first time I did a home visit to one of my new mothers, I was shocked. The conditions and environment she lived in was horrible. It was in a neighborhood that my principal wouldn’t let me go to alone. It wasn’t her fault she had to live like this, she was born into poverty, and her mother was just a child when she had her. This life was all she knew. Don’t give up on your students, you may be the one person that believes in them enough to turn their lives around and be successful. Being there goes hand in hand with not giving up.
One year Krissy came to my school, she had transferred from Houston and thought she was really, really tough. When she came in my room she tried to disregard any and all rules and guidelines I had set. But I was firm and she soon realized she wasn’t going to get away with anything. One day she plopped herself into the chair next to my desk and opened-up. Her mom was, for lack of a better word, a crack head. Krissy had moved up here to get away from her mother and her boyfriends. Krissy and I would sit and talk when she was done with her work and I taught her how to sew. That summer, Krissy got pregnant. She was terrified to tell me because she didn’t want me to be mad at her. I told her I wasn’t mad, I was disappointed but that didn’t mean that she still couldn’t graduate high school and go to college. She was crying when she told me that I was the only one that believed in her. Fast-forward nine months. When it came time for the baby to come, Krissy’s mom was “too busy” to be there. I was the one that was in the delivery room with her. The nurse had called me at school and told me it was time. Someone covered my class, and I ran to the hospital, when I came through the door, Krissy looked at me and said, “You made it, I’m ready now.” Five minutes later, my God-daughter was there. When it came time for Krissy to graduate, once again, her mom was too strung-out to get there to graduation, telling Krissy was on her way, but never leaving. . I cannot even begin to fathom what it must be like for some of these students who have no support system, just like Krissy. Most of the time we never know. They just duck their heads and go on about their day trying to stay under the radar. I am not implying that you need to go to the birth of your students children or become parents to them, but being there when they need you can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes being there may just mean taking five minutes to listen to their problems, give them some advice or just listen to them vent. I know you may have been planning to go to get some coffee or have a few seconds to yourself, but sometimes, in the life of your students, those few minutes could be the turning point in that child’s life.
“There is no future without forgiveness”- Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Learn how to forgive. As I said earlier, 50% of the time when a student lashes out at you, it’s not because they dislike you or are “bad kids”. They may have had a bad morning, didn’t know where they were going to sleep the night before, maybe their parents were fighting again, or perhaps they hadn’t eaten since they had lunch at school the day before. They are children, it’s important that we remember this fact. Many have no positive role models to teach them how to act, how to be respectful or how to forgive. I have heard too many parents to count that yell and belittle their children for things they have done years ago. They don’t need to hear it from their teachers too. I’ve had students cut me to the bone with their words or actions, I just have to remember that they are children, many from lives that I don’t even want to imagine. I have to model behavior that I expect, which includes forgiveness. I am by no means expecting teachers not to hold students responsible for their behavior or actions, simply no to hold it against them once they have faced the consequences for those actions. I had a student at the end of last year that’s behavior and actions devastated me. I wondered all summer how I would react and handle this student the next school year when she was in my class. I decided to put it in the past and treat her just like all my others, with respect and kindness. The year started and she was hesitant when she came to my room the first few days. After about a week, she asked to speak with me in private. We discussed what happened the previous year and she apologized for her behavior. She then asked me how I could have forgiven her. I explained that there is good in everyone and after thinking about it during the summer, I figured she must have had a horrible day and I was the one she lashed out at. I also explained that it was in the past, we had to focus on the future. That is not to say that we haven’t had our disagreements this year, but she knows that she can talk to me about issues before she gets out of hand. She has since confided in me that was the first time that anyone has given her unconditional forgiveness and understanding. I know that I cannot reach every student or inspire them to be successful, but it’s the ones that I do that make my teaching career all worthwhile.
I’ll end with what I tell my students when they get down or feel hopeless, “Be the change you want to see in the world”- Mahatma Gandhi. It all starts with you.