As a teacher, we cherish those times when years later we run into, or hear from, a child who still remembers you, and tells you something you long ago forgot that meant so much to them. All teachers treasure such moments. They keep us going, helping counter all the difficulties teaching in today’s schools.
But there is an opposite side to this story, one that is much less seen – about children whose actions changed our lives. For me, one stands out more than any other – the year Tom, Michelle, Ryan and Chris taught me to be a teacher.
You see, until then, I thought a teacher’s job was only to professionally and completely cover the curricula, take attendance, and keep the children safe. In my defense, I was always a competent and “solid” teacher. I could explain well, and liked what I was doing. I received good evaluations. The children liked me.
But then, Tom, Chris, Michelle, and Ryan taught me the most important lesson of my teaching life – I was a great babysitter, but not much of a teacher, after all.
There was something special about their Algebra II class that became obvious in the first semester. It was a standard level class with more than half on IEPs, with a fair number of supposed “bad actors” that were known for being difficult students, and where most in the class had never done very well in math. By any normal standard, it should have been one of those classes every teacher has had where the best part of the week was going home Friday afternoon. But by November it was obvious to me that this was nothing like what I should have expected. Why? It took me a while to realize what was happening – but four students, four very unlikely students, were setting an example in the class, and a standard of work, that was way beyond what the course offered.
The four wanted more, not less. They wanted a teacher who would challenge and excite them about math – not a babysitter professionally doing a solid, but plain-vanilla job of teaching.
They pushed for more work. These four would jump out of their chair and go help explain the material to any other student who seemed to be having trouble with it. They asked questions. They pushed me to do a better job of showing why something worked. They would call out “…give us a harder problem to try.” They would argue with each other on how to solve something. They loved getting problems on something that had not yet been taught other than just enough basics that they might reason it out.
We blew through the year. By April, if I remember correctly, we had completed the curriculum, plus had added a half dozen topics that were only taught in the CP and honors Algebra II courses. So, I had covered everything, and then some, but we had a month of school to go. Obviously you would expect “normal” children, especially seniors about to graduate, to want to coast until finals. Not this mob! They asked to learn some basic calculus! I never saw that coming. So we spent a few weeks on derivatives and limits. And the entire class dove into the material.
And they were a most unlikely quartet! Tom was the ringleader and catalyst of the four. Yet he was also one of a handful of students in the school on the unofficial “watch list” as a problem, hall walker, etc. I remember being warned about him the first week of class by another teacher. He had affixed a clear label to Tom of “trouble maker,” and nothing would shake his view. It is ironic how absolutely wrong that label turned out to be. Tom turned out to be one of those leaders in a class that changes a whole class for the better. He was the one who set an example and pushed other students, and was there for one student in particular who was going through major personal issues. I met him once a few years later – and found a young man who was as fine a person as I remember from that class.
But, while Tom might have been the catalyst, he was not alone. Chris was the quiet one – but would end the year with the highest grade of any student I had in any class that year. Ryan (Moose!) was the popular jock and a great hockey player, yet was all business in class and finished just behind Chris in grades, doing better than any honors or CP student in my other classes. Michelle was the vivacious soccer player who anywhere else would have been head cheerleader and prom queen – but she was the most inclusive, genuinely friendly to all, and accepting student I had ever seen. It was an odd combination of four students – my own chance to observe a “breakfast club.” But this club impacted the entire class, and me.
None of this would have happened without these four. They set an example for the class – and unknowingly called me out on how poorly I was teaching. It was time for me to stop coasting, and finally learn the most important lesson of my teaching life. A good teacher professionally covers the curricula, but a teacher that changes a child’s life is one who challenges them, sets expectations far above anything they had ever seen before, and then works his/her tail off to give them a chance to earn pride in succeeding! That lesson shaped every class in every year since.
Children are the treasure we have in life – ours, and for teachers, our students. We can help change their lives. But ten years ago I learned something else – those children can also change ours. We just need to listen.