I have a confession. I never wanted to be a teacher. It was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do with my life. After a Humanities degree and an English degree, I started teaching as a way to finance graduate school. My parents told me it was the perfect job for me. I was able to be creative every day. But, my first year was brutal. I took a job in a private inner city school. There was little to no support from the administration. No mentoring program. No professional development. No supplies. Most of the students were on scholarship and their home lives were challenging. Some of my fifth graders couldn’t add one-digit numbers. Others had been born addicted to drugs. But, I had high expectations for my students and they knew it. I had nothing to lose. I thought teaching was a gig for just a few years. I pushed my students…hard. I didn’t let up. I rewarded them for their successes and I showed them I was invested in their success. It was that year that I learned the most important lesson in teaching: relationships are key. I could craft the most amazing lessons and activities, but none of it mattered without the individual relationships I made with my students. I let my kids know I was learning right along with them. I made mistakes, plenty of them. I questioned my choices. I wondered if what I did mattered, especially when it came to one of my most difficult students. She was a smart girl, but troubled with a volatile home life. I could not count the number of times I pulled her aside to discuss poor choices she had made and encourage her to do better. I pointed out her strengths and articulated my hopes for her. I never gave up on her. I pressed her often because I could see her potential. When the year ended and I moved on to another school, I worried about what would become of her.
I have often thought about why I stayed in education after a year that left me so frazzled and defeated. Once again, I come back to relationships. I moved to a public school and like many new teachers to the district, they placed me in an urban school. It could have been a repeat of my first year of teaching. I could have been like so many other educators and burned out quickly. But, I didn’t. I thrived and it was because of the relationships I built with colleagues and the lessons I learned that first year about learning along with my students. Now that I think back, I was pretty lucky to have a few people in my school, outside of my classroom, who were my champions early on. I spent a lot of time in the reading resource room with the reading coaches and assistant principal. I asked a lot of questions. I admitted my mistakes. They helped me believe in my ability as a teacher. They never discouraged any of my harebrained classroom schemes (and I’m sure there were plenty!). They backed me up, one of them literally sprinting into my classroom to run interference on a hostile parent. My cheerleaders were amazing educators. Educators I could look up to and educators I wanted to emulate. They were committed to our students. It was through them that I saw my career path could be in education. These cheerleaders invested in me as a professional. I signed up for every professional development offering they shared. I craved conversations on pedagogy and workshop model and anchor texts. I was sent to conferences. I showed up every Saturday morning for training offered by the union. I have always loved to learn, but this time I was learning and immediately implementing what I learned. I was empowered and equipped. That feeling of being frazzled and defeated was gone and I found real success in my classroom.
These lessons on relationships, encouragement, questioning, professional learning, mentoring, and admitting mistakes are lessons I have taken with me to every school and every classroom where I have worked. They are the seeds to growth in students and teachers. They can make the difference between a student or a teacher flourishing or floundering.
A few years ago I was checking out at a grocery store when the cashier recognized me. It was that challenging fifth grader from my first year of teaching. She was in high school at this point. As we chatted and caught up, she explained that she was the recipient of a scholarship to an elite private school in the area. She told me I never gave up on her and that my persistent encouragement inspired her to achieve more and reach the potential I saw in her as a fifth grade student. As a classroom teacher you always hope that what you say or do will get through to students. We don’t always see the enduring impact we have on students. It is part of what makes being an educator simultaneously the most difficult and the most rewarding job in the world. It’s the job I never thought I would have, but can’t imagine not doing.