Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Joys of Teaching

One of the things you learn fairly early on in your career as a teacher is to not expect a lot of appreciation from either parents or students. I suppose nobody goes into teaching for the money or fame, anyways. However, one of the nicest compliments, in my opinion, is when a student thanks you or otherwise expresses his/her appreciation for what you have done. Over the years I have had former students thank me for helping them, believing in them, being patient with them, teaching them, showing them a real world application to my lessons, giving them boundaries, setting high standards and then holding them to them, and the like. The majority of the time these words of thanks come years after graduation, when they realize everything I demanded or encouraged was in preparation for life outside of high school, whether it be college, the work force, a trade school, or the military.

It has been four years since I quit teaching to stay home with my children and people ask me all the time if I miss it and/or if I will return. I loved teaching. I loved being in the classroom with the kids, interacting with them, challenging them, seeing the "light go on" as they grasped a concept for the first time. If my day consisted of solely teaching my job would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, it is the political bull and hoop jumping that sucked the joy out of teaching for me. Towards the end it seemed like it was less and less about the kids and actual learning and retention and more and more about test scores and appeasing disgruntled parents.

Over the years I have kept in touch with a handful of students and former athletes that played for me. Many of them were students my first and second year teaching when I was only 23 and they were 18. The age difference was not that great and so I had to "lay down the law" so they understood there was a boundary. Much to my surprise I found that "attitude" really worked and with clear boundaries and expectations kids stayed within those boundaries and met those expectations. Now, many of these first students are 25 or 26 years old and the dynamic of the relationships have changed. I've veered off topic a bit....

Anyway, a former student who was a senior in one of my English classes in 2003 "friended" me on Facebook the other day. He was a kid I really liked, but who other teachers labeled difficult. They thought he was lazy, had an attitude problem, and was generally a lost cause. I made it a point to never base my feelings of a student on what other teachers said and I didn't with him either. The first few weeks all of what these teachers had said was true. However, for some reason he and I connected. I kept on him, called him at home and woke him up when he ditched my class (which was first period), demanded he participate, kept on him about work he owed me. Basically, I drove him crazy and held him to a standard that no other teacher had apparently held him to. I didn't really think much of it because I did this with all my students. I expected a lot and more often than not students rose to meet those expectations. Second semester he had a free period and he asked to be my aide. I agreed. During the time when he was running copies for me or cleaning the classroom we would chat just about general things, mostly music which he and I both loved. I also had him use that time to make sure his work from other classes was done, had him organize each class into binders, made him clean out his backpack...just things that seem like common sense but that a lot of highschoolers don't do.

He graduated, I got five new classes of 30 + students, and years passed. Until yesterday when I get this incredibly touching note from him about how there are very few things or teachers he remembers positively about high school, but that I was one of them, as was my English class. He then thanked me for teaching him so much, not just about English but about life in general, and said that I was the only reason he actually ended up graduating on time. He said I was the first teacher who held him to such a high standard and demanded that he reach it and that he appreciated my "no bullshit, no excuse" attitude when it came to school work, education, and behavior. One of my non-negotiable policies was that I never accepted late work. There were no exceptions. This was always a point of contention as other teachers would accept it for reduced credit. My reasoning was that it is rare that any college professor will accept work late and even more rare that your boss will accept half-baked excuses for missing a deadline. He pleaded with me on more than one occasion to accept his work that was a day to weeks late. The answer was always NO. In this note he apologizes for "hassling me" about the "late work stuff" and says somewhat unbelievably that his college professors won't accept late work either and that his boss made him stay late to finish a job because it had to be ready to go the next morning. He seemed dumbfounded that my reasoning was actually based on what goes on in the "real world."

Honestly, it was one of the most touching things I have had said to me in a professional sense. I think part of the reason was because of the source; I would not have expected this from him. I was also happy to learn that he was gainfully employed and had gone back to college to finish his degree.

When I think about returning to teaching I am truly undecided. I know I was good at my job and that my students learned a lot, but I sometimes wonder if that is really enough or if any of that really makes a difference. When I hear things like this from students years later it really exemplifies all that is right with education. Lord knows there is plenty wrong with it, whether it be public, private, parochial, charter, alternative, or home school. It makes me think that maybe I really do belong in a classroom and that maybe students are getting a lot more out of it than any of us are giving them credit for.


Nancy said...

I think like anything else it's tough to put your heart into something when you don't know how your efforts are going to be received.
You sounds like such an amazing person and I bet the students loved having you as their teacher, whether they told you or not.
That much have been a great feeling to have heard from your student.
I bet someday when you're ready you'll go back to teaching.

Robyn said...

I am positive you've reached more students than you even realize.

When I was in my 2nd or 3rd year of law school, I sat down and wrote a "thank you" letter to my favorite high school teacher. He called to tell me how much it meant to him and it came at a time when he was considering leaving teaching for administrative work. I begged him to keep teaching -- he still is!