The Heart of a Teacher

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.

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Their Hopes and Dreams Forever Changed Mine

A few weeks ago, Mr. Payne and I began to see a disconnect between a great deal of our students and ourselves. We both work hard to form relationships with every child and for the most part are very successful at the relationship piece. However, when we tried to talk to them about the future and college we were met with resistance each time especially with our students who are English Language Learners. As we talked to them about why they thought college wasn’t an option for them a heartbreaking misconception surfaced. Our students basically look at us as upper class “white people” and themselves as “lower class”. We kept talking with them and trying to flush out their thoughts to understand where the disconnect was. Over and over again the kids were basically telling us that we were successful and that they never would be. This was a startling revelation for both of us and we decided we had to do something to flip their view points.

On a whim one day I remembered that I had read an article about how the most powerful question you can ask students who are socio-economically disadvantaged is “what are your hopes and dreams?”. Last Thursday morning Mr. Payne and I stepped away from the content a while, shut our classroom door, and had a long talk with the faces looking back at us. I can’t tell you everything that we said or they said because I promised them that what happened in the room that day would remain confidential. We spent the next half our telling the kids more about ourselves, about how we were both first generation college students and about our own childhood circumstances. We worked to really convey to them that we didn’t always have it easy either but in the words of Kid President, we got a goal and we got a dream and then we got to work. The kids shared some of their own stories and circumstances and did a lot of nodding and agreeing as other people shared theirs. It was one of those magical classroom moments that I won’t forget.

To follow-up we gave each student an index card and asked them to write down their hopes and dreams. They quickly got to work and wrote more than this group of students ever does as they filled out their card. We assured them that no one would see them except us unless they gave us permission and promised that we would do everything in our power to help them achieve whatever dreams they wrote down. After the kids left Joe and I spent some time tearfully reading their responses and were amazed at what we found. These kids, the kids who fail every class, the kids who are behavior problems, the kids who don’t seem to care about anything have some amazing hopes and dreams. Flipping through those cards, what really jumped out at me first was that every goal was attainable. However the second thing that caught my attention was the fact that more than anything these kids just want to help others. They want to be police officers, teachers, and military personnel. They want better lives and to help their families but most importantly the undertone of them all was that they just want to have hope. Hope for a future and hope for a better life than what they have now.

I asked special permission to share this card on my blog. This student is the epitome of the kid teachers talk about as being “hopeless”. He doesn’t seem to care about school, never does his homework, rarely pays attention to what I am saying, and is hard to find meaningful consequences and incentives for. He is an english language learner and struggles with reading and writing tremendously. He is the kind of kid who most would think just doesn’t care but his hopes and dreams tell a different story. He cares a lot just not about all of the same things we do.
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This entire process changed my life in a lot of ways.  It made me realize that no matter how much I try to build relationships with my students that there will always be parts of their lives I can never understand.  It made me realize that no matter how disengaged or uninterested a students seems they still have hopes and dreams but they may be different and much more selfless than mine could ever be.  Most importantly, these kids and their dreams changed mine.  I now dream of being an even more effective teacher, of pushing myself and these kids further than anyone ever believed possible, of helping every one of them achieve their goals.  After all, they changed my dreams now it is time for me to help them achieve theirs.

Here is a great summary of their dreams.  I can’t wait to see them come true.

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