I am not sure if it is the approaching holidays, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the semester or the faces of some special students that have touched my life this year but I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have the heart of a teacher. I’ve spent a fair number of hours in a variety of teachers classrooms over the past few years, been to countless conferences to hear leading education experts, and read every research article and education book that I’ve been able to get my hands on and yet none of these experiences can fully capture the heart and soul of our nation’s schools.
I’ve observed teachers with more content knowledge than I will ever possess. These people have spent their lives studying mathematics and are more of a mathematician than I will ever be yet they lack the heart of a teacher that motivates students to learn difficult material. I’ve also seen teachers who have to continue to push themselves to expand their content knowledge to understand it to the level required to teach students but whose classrooms are amazing places of learning because of the heart they have for every kid that enters their room. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is easier to teach someone who loves kids the content than it is to teach someone who knows the content to love kids.
I sat in a meeting recently about what could be done to further improve the quality of math education in the state of Kentucky and although there were varied opinions on how and what to do the one thing we all agreed upon was the fact that 99.9% of teachers have the absolute best of intentions when they get up and go to school every morning. I don’t know many teachers who get up and say you know what I am going to purposefully send a bad worksheet home today so it can confuse my kids and go viral on Facebook. I don’t know a teacher that looks for a more confusing way to teach something so their kids can struggle and feel unsuccessful. I don’t know many teachers who can stay in this profession with the long hours, unreasonable expectations, and ever changing climate without having the heart of a teacher.
I truly don’t know when I developed a heart for teaching. It was never my intent to be a teacher. I was supposed to make six figures doing marketing or become a big name in the agriculture business in which I was raised but it’s not what ended up happening. As a part of my “leadership degree” I ended up in a classroom student teaching and while those first years were rough and the learning curve was steep I couldn’t deny that there was something about those hugs from kids who needed love, the funny notes about my class, and the excitement from kids who were finally excited about learning that stole my heart.
My days are messy and stressful but my heart stays full. Last week I had the crazy idea to build gingerbread houses with 110 7th graders. I’d say 75% had never undertaken such a task and by all accounts the day was a disaster. However, although I am still cleaning icing and sprinkles out of every corner of my room those kids laughed, worked together, and made memories that they would have never had otherwise. I went home tired and swore in the car on the way home that we’d never do it again and then I looked at the pictures and watched the videos. I saw the smiles, the giggles, and the joy that thirteen year olds had when they built their first gingerbread house and rather than focusing on the mess that heart of teacher kicked in and I started thinking about what we could do next instead.
I teach a little boy this year that by all accounts I should stay mad at. He doesn’t do his homework, disrupts my class with ridiculous jokes and stories, and gets sent to me from other teacher’s classes more often than I can count. However at the same time he greets me every morning and before class with a good morning and a hug, he does well on almost every test in spite of not doing his homework, and makes me laugh when he knows I am having a bad day. Those are the kids that make this teacher’s heart stay in the classroom. I wish often that I wasn’t so stressed, that I didn’t perpetually have a bag of papers in my front seat to grade, and that my e-mail inbox was below it’s current 10,991 messages but I wouldn’t trade any of that if it meant I didn’t get to spend my days with kids like that one.
I get more emotional than I like to admit when I see the news these days about the climate of education in America. Charter schools, turmoil over Common Core Standards, accountability changes, private schools, a bankrupt retirement systems, and leadership changes in Washington are just a few of stories that weigh heavy on my mind but yet I keep the faith in my profession. I remain hopeful not because of policy changes, political promises, or leadership but simply because I’m certain that you can’t stop the heart of a teacher.