Why I Teach…
I’ve got several blog posts brewing, but I’ve got something heavy on my heart instead. I’m a first-year teacher, but I’ve wanted to be a first-year teacher for several years and I have a lot of complicated feelings and experiences about going through life wanting to be a teacher within a culture that doesn’t always understand the draw to teaching, especially when you choose to work in a low-income high school among the’ unmotivated hooligans and troubled youth’. This is for you.
Tonight was the Student of the Quarter ceremony – each teacher nominates a student who deserves to be recognized for the work over the last quarter. We packed our little theater – parents and friends and students who may have never been recognized in their entire lives were suddenly the center of attention. This is a great night.
The student I nominated was there to accept her certificate. She earned a D in my course last semester, but damn did she earn her grade. She came in every day for two months, even Saturdays – no exaggeration, I have the tutoring logs to prove it – to raise her grade. But ‘raise your grade’ doesn’t mean ‘help with tonights homework’. It means: learn how integer operations work. Learn how algebra works. Learn how the coordinate system works. Learn how slope and graphing lines and order of operations and long division – learn how it all works. Those blog posts I wrote about fixing algebra mistakes? They’re based on my experiences with this student. The feedback I got right here, on this blog, helped me be a better teacher for her.
Slowly and painfully and carefully, she learned every little thing she had missed over the last two years of her life. Slowly and carefully, she was able to participate in class – to answer questions without much help – to have a discussion with the people next to her because she knew what she was talking about. Her grades started to improve. She started to pass my class. She still came in for tutoring. She patiently tried and failed and tried again and kept with it. And she was successful.
She took her final for my class early, after school one day. I watched out of the corner of my eye and realized every single thing she writes on that exam is something I have taught her. She uses the number line for every single problem, just like we practiced. She sets up her congruency problems using the ____ = _____ framework that I showed her. She calculates slope and does her algebra just like we practiced. She draws arrows like I do – underlines like I do. This is surreal. Every line on her final is something she worked hard to learn this semester, putting in more hours than any other student in any of my classes.
And she passed. Both my class and the final.
Anyway – back to tonight. Student of the quarter ceremony. I get to stand on stage and read what I wrote about her. About how I’ve never seen someone work so hard. Be so dedicated. How I think she can accomplish anything. And I mean it. I can’t be sure, but I get the feeling this is one of the first times in her life that she’s had this kind of honor. That she’s been recognized like this. That she’s been able to persevere and be successful and be rewarded.
Minutes before the ceremony, I discover that her English teacher also nominated her for Student of the Quarter. Her written statement reads almost identical to mine – she’s never seen a student turn her education around with such determination and perseverance and force as this student has. The English teacher isn’t there, so I get to read both statements – to tell her, twice, that she’s turned her whole education around and we’re all damn proud of her.
Reading that certificate was a good feeling. Shaking her hand was a good feeling. Watching her walk back to her smiling, excited family and give them all a hug was a great feeling. Fostering such tremendous growth in someone is a great feeling, especially someone who had slipped through the cracks for years – who is rarely recognized but tonight was the only person to be recognized twice. I had a strange sense of pride that I can’t really describe.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about teaching because parts of it are incredibly personal to me. When I do talk about it, I usually tell people that teaching is a continuum – there are moments of great highs and moments of tremendous lows. I like my low-income high school because I believe it has the widest continuums – when it’s bad, it’s bad – slip into a depressive coma bad, don’t want to go to work bad, question your self-worth bad. Talking to people, I get the impression that they think this is only what my school is.
This student used to call herself stupid and say nothing mattered because she’d never amount to anything. And now she doesn’t. And that’s worth it to me.