As I sat on my plane ride to NY for the weekend I stared out the window and naturally my mind wandered to teaching. The more I started thinking about my life and my job, the more I started to feel the warm tears build up in my eyes and the lights of the city below me blurred together. Though this has happened countless times in the past due to do my job, this was different. For the very first time, these were tears of joy; tears of happiness, tears of blissful realization.
Maybe it’s because I was on the plane engulfed in the incredible story of Michael Johnston of In the Deep Heart’s Core, an incredibly accurate and well-written book of a first year TFA teacher’s experience of teaching in the Delta at Greenville High (where I actually taught summer school at Institute). Or maybe it’s because I just had a very good day today at school. Either way, something overcame me as I gazed out into the world from above and reflected on my own teaching experience.
I had an epiphany. I like my job. I love teaching. Though I may tear my hair out at the frustrations I have experienced with particular students, classes, my administration, and the whole public education system in general, I still feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I make a difference. I get to influence 135 kid’s lives every single day. I get to greet them with a smile. I get to ask them how they are doing. I get talk with them. I get to hear their stories. I get them to make me laugh. I get to teach them something they’ve never known how to do before. I get to seem them overcome obstacles. I get to see them learn. I get to see them succeed. And I get to see them grow. These are my children, and for the very first time of taking a “sick day” so that I can go to NY, I am bummed that I don’t get to be there for them tomorrow.
I never had these feelings last year! I never missed my kids this much. I didn’t feel affection for my students last year until the second semester. What’s different? Teaching experience. Year 2 is just so much better. I’m not saying I don’t have my problems, because I do. I certainly have a handful of unruly, irresponsible, careless, and slightly rude students sprinkled throughout my day, and some classes definitely have their off days. By no means are ANY of my students not worth my patience and effort and love. I truly love each of them. I have a soft spot for the hard ones and I have hope that with the right approach and attitude, things can turn around. This year, I know what I’m doing. I know what tone of voice to use; I know what the right thing to say is. I am always putting myself in my kids shoes, keeping in mind what they must be thinking every minute of the lesson. I have a much sunnier disposition, and a much more confident and calmer demeanor. I now walk into school with a cup half full (of coffee) attitude and a bouncy, excited energy. I look in the mirror in the morning and instead of thinking “just gotta make it, just gotta make, Friday’s almost here”, I think, “I’m going to enjoy today. It’s going to be valuable.”
Last year if I had known I would eventually get to this point, I would have had a hard time believing it. I love my kiddos from last year, but overall it was a very tough struggle and it strained me a lot. The thing is, is that I’m right about making an impact. I sometimes doubted this notion last year on days when I felt like I was talking to a brick wall, pulling teeth to get kids to participate, and really pissing kids off. I am now starting to realize that you truly never know how much you impact a kid.
Yesterday afterschool as I was standing at my whiteboard helping a girl work through a problem, I noticed another student just standing behind us. I was so focused on the problem that for about 3 minutes, I did not really acknowledge the student behind me. Then once I finished I turned around and my eyes focused on a face that I never in a million years would have thought would show up in my classroom this year. It was Justin. The kid whom I butted heads with every single day last year. Justin was a smaller, baby-faced kid with a good heart deep down, but hung out with the wrong type of people. He sat in the front row and everyday last year would loudly complain in utter frustration that I was “going too fast”. That became his signature catchphrase and instead of ever truly trying, he just sat in class and made making teaching the lesson as difficult as possible for me his sole priority. He would do anything to try and get under my skin and impede the lesson, by making fart noises when I would walk by, or grunt when I was instructing. Every quiz day it would be a battle with Justin on getting him to take his ear buds out of his ears because I didn’t allow students to listen to their MP3 players during assessments and he quite frankly thought it was “bogus”. After the 3 seconds went by before it actually registered, that yes in fact this kid was back in my room just to say hi, the grudge I secretly held for him instantly went away and I was overjoyed to see him as I greeted him with an excited hug. We got to talking about how his school year was going and I brought Geometry class. At first he said it was fine, but then when I asked him about the pace, he sheepishly smiled while staring at the floor and replied, “it’s going too fast”. We both had a comfortable laugh over this statement as he and both knew full well why that comment was comical. Then after a few seconds of silence, he lifted his eyes to mine and said “I wish I had you for Geometry”. I was blown out of the water. On the inside I was both confused and happy to hear this, but on the exterior I acted surprised and neutral to his comment. I told him I never would have thought to have heard him say that and he agreed. Justin ended up staying in my room for almost two hours and offered to help me out any way he could. He graded class work for me, he filed quizzes, and he updated systems in my classroom. Justin had seemed to transform into the kid I always knew he could be; sweet, kind, and caring. I couldn’t stop beaming when thinking about his visit when I went home after school.
Today as I was walking back up to my room from bus duty, I saw another girl from last year that was in the same class as Justin. Jalisa was always really rough around the edges and she often got in trouble in my class and was never afraid to challenge my authority with a huge attitude. As my nerves twitched for a second, I smiled and complimented her on her outfit for picture day. She opened her arms for a hug and exclaimed, “I miss you!! I wish I had you again!” Another very surprising statement.
Lastly, the biggest surprise came from Cody. Last year he severely struggled in Algebra even though he was completely capable of doing well. He just chose not to really try if he didn’t understand something within the first 5 minutes of class. He often would shut down and either try to sleep in class, or refuse to take notes and make bird noises (think baby bird/pterodactyl) all throughout the lesson. I never once caught him in the act of it, as he was as talented as a ventriloquist and did not show any signs of making the noises, but I knew fully well that it was him. Throughout last year I probably gave out 4 surveys to gauge how the kids felt about the class etc. On every single survey Cody’s answers would range from “IDK”, “NO” “I hate math” and “This class sucks.” Not surprisingly Cody’s bad attitude and failure to do work are what ended him up in Algebra a second time as a sophomore….in my class once again. This year he is in a small, joyful, hardworking class, where we have fun everyday. I believe my improved teaching ability along with the awesome students I lucked out with, Cody is now also a completely changed person. He is now doing his homework every single night and takes pride in it too. He has managed to get all A’s on his quizzes and even PARTICIPATES in class. He’ll talk to me about non-math related topics and take in interest in getting to know me. As I was reading through surveys in the airport, I came across his survey. His responses may not seem like anything special, but to me it indicated a world of difference had been made. My heart shined for Cody at the end when I read “You a good teacher”.
These moments on top of other very positive comments my currents students have made to me are what make the job worthwhile. In the middle of the endless planning and emotion draining, it’s necessary to have reminders like that to know why I am here. I’m happy to say that everyone was right, it gets so much better your second year. I feel like I’m just starting to really get the hang of this craft and I know I have so much more to learn. It’s an art and a science that I am continuously starving to learn more about and master. I simply cannot think of any other job that would fulfill me more than to fight every day against the achievement gap with these kids.