Friday, December 11, 2009

Chalk it up to Teachers

In my class, I require all students to do a daily math timing. Each student has set a goal of how many timings they will pass in order to attend the party at the end of the term. If they meet their goal, they are able to go to the party, and they still keep doing timings.

On Tuesday, I started the timer for the customary two minute timing. As I was watching the class frantically scribble their answers down in order to get enough digits to pass, I noticed one student who wasn't writing. In fact, he was talking to his neighbor. I quietly said both of their names. The neighbor immediately stopped talking and started doing the math.

The first student, though, just sat there. I walked over to his desk, and he still just sat there. I asked him why he wasn't working. He informed me that he had already met his goal and hence did not need to do timings anymore. I quietly explained that timings are required every day, regardless of whether you've already met your goal. I further explained that he needed to get to work.

He said no. He maintained a polite tone of voice, but rather firmly informed me that he did not feel it was necessary to complete a timing if he had already met his goal, which was the only reason he did them in the first place.

. : . : . : .

That was only one event in a rather stressful teaching week. I have been struggling to find some kind of balance between being the kind of teacher I know I can be and still taking care of and enjoying my family.

There are many films out there about teachers, some true and some not. These stories generally bring good feelings, a feeling of success in helping students in some kind of difficult situation. We applaud the teacher who went against the grain and was able to not only reach his or her students, but almost single-handedly managed to change the course of their lives for the better.

To name a few...

Stand and Deliver

Mona Lisa Smile

Freedom Writers

Lean on Me

Dead Poets Society

The Emperor's Club

The Ron Clark Story

...and there are many more. These movies all have the common thread--one teacher does what no one else can, in a way that no one else will try, and transforms the lives of the students. Despite the ridicule from academic peers and stress from parents and community, that teacher forges ahead to do what they know will be most beneficial to the students.

If I think too hard, I find these movies really depressing.

I look at what those teachers are able to accomplish and wish that I could do the same. I wish that I could have that kind of lasting impact in each individual life. To make that kind of difference would be truly wonderful.

But I know that I can't.

. : . : . : .

I know that I can do better than I am doing. That's what's been so hard this week. I truly believe I could make that kind of difference in at least a few of my students' lives, if I were willing to make the sacrifice.

There are three reasons why I can't:

There is another common thread amongst those stories that is often mentioned, but rather overlooked in the shadow of the great accomplishments and successes.

Every teacher looses something important. Something extremely important.

There are two major loses: family or professional respect. Many of these teachers have no family, or at best broken relationships with the family they do have. They do not have the time to devote to their families because all their time and effort goes to the students.

Erin Gruwell loses her husband. Jaime Escalante loses time with his son and wife. Glenn Holland can barely speak to his son because he did not have the time to learn sign language. Katherine Watson has a few relationships with potential, but they all end because her students come first.

In any profession, peer support is critical to long-term success. Without others around you who understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, it is hard to keep doing it for long. When a teacher takes a different path and defies tradition, that support likely disappears.

Joe Clark lost his vice principal. John Keating taught at Welton Academy for one year before being asked to leave. Katherine Watson taught at Wellesley College for one year before being asked to conform or leave. Glenn Holland didn't even want to be a teacher. He succeeded as a teacher, but at the expense of his dream of being a composer.

Don't get me wrong, I love these movies. I get caught up in the excitement of seeing the light in the students' eyes, knowing that they are going to take what that teacher has given them and make the world a better place because of it. I get way into movies, more than I should probably. But as a teacher, it's not the same.

. : . : . : .

I work with several teachers who I think are amazing, but they will never have a movie made about them. There are several things I do in my classroom that I like to think are making a difference for my students, but they aren't the makings of a blockbuster film. I have learned a lot in the short two and a half years that I have been teaching in my own classroom, and I often feel good about a particular lesson, activity, or management technique that worked well. Other days, though, things don't go as well, and I wonder if it's worth the effort at all when I'm not doing everything I know to do that could help the kids.

But I do it anyway. I'm learning to be content with the best I can do, even if it's not the best I'm capable of.

Every once in a while I do get some indication that I'm doing okay as a teacher, even if I'm not doing absolutely everything I know to do...

My students wrote some journal entries this week. Here are a couple excerpts:

"I think your an awsome teacher and that you do things that other teacher wouldnt dare to do. I love being in your class."

"I [think] you are a very good teacher. I hope you can teach untell your 80 because you are a very good techer. :) I hope you Will live untell your 100!!! because you bzerd [deserve] it because you are a good teacher. I hope Jane and Megon will [be] good parents because of you. I hope they will be become a teacher becuase of you. they thing you are a good teacher and a good mom. I hope you will have a good life and a good Chistmas and a good year. thank you for helping me with verying [everything] and thank you for teaching us so we can have a life. thank you for very thing. the end."

I did add the brackets just to make it legible. The bold words were from the student.
...but we may need a little more work on grammar and spelling...

My principal apparently also thinks that I am a competent teacher because he has allowed the university to give me two student teachers next semester, for seven weeks each. I hope that I can teach them, too, in a way that will help them become better teachers for their students.

. : . : . : .

In Freedom Writers, Erin comes home to see her husband sitting with all his suitcases packed, ready to leave. She said, "But I love you." He said, "No, you love the idea of me."

Sometimes that's how I feel about teaching. I love the idea of being that perfect teacher, with complete devotion to my students, but I can't have it all.

Yes, I am a teacher.
And I will stay a teacher, at least until the end of May.
And I will be a wife and a mother, too.


Britta said...

Wow. You have several points there that are really amazing. I really hope that some day in your life you can manage to both teach and be a mom without feeling either are neglected. You are a great teacher and a great mom.

Liz, Karl and Madison said...

I think you make a bigger difference than you think! And I'm sure that your children (students) don't feel like your not giving them your all. You are a good teacher and a good mother

Jared and Delia said...

You are amazing Laura! I think you are MORE amazing because you balance both a healthy, happy family and work.

Kate said...

You said it!

Tannie Datwyler said...


I love this. I have been having a really hard time the last few days about not teaching anymore. I went to a book club with my teacher friends and heard them talking about the students and the amazing change they can see in their lives and telling funny stories and laughing and having that co-worker feeling that I miss so much.

You don't know how much I needed this reminder of why I chose to stay home instead. I LOVE to teach and I can't give it less than 100% but that comes at the expense of my children and husband.

Thank you.

Good luck with the student teachers!! That's awesome, I didn't think you could do that until after your 3rd year.

Katie said...

Laura, I found your blog via Britta's. This is Katie Rasmussen by the way. Strong's the name now. Your family is beautiful and I love this post. It made me think of two things in particular. The first is that, I have indeed had several teachers that have had transforming influences in my life. Some quite subtly, but that is the nature of teaching. Everything you do will be absorbed whether it is intended to be or not. This is true of being a parent as well (though I see parenting and teaching as very similar things)

The other thing that I thought of was a boss of mine. He was running a business independently, but his suppliers were pressuring him to expand out of his home into a store front. He gave it a try, but one day he came in and told us (his two employees) that he would be closing the store front. He explained that he thought he could make it work, but that it would be a big mountain to climb. He said he didn't want to climb that mountain, get to the top, and discover that his family was at the top of another mountain. I've always respected that decision. I loved the difference you pointed out in what you can do and what you are capable of. A lot of it has to do with choice.

Long response. The point of all of this is that I love the post.

Jamie Younker said...

Wow did I ever need to read that tonight. (yay for blog stalking) Thanks :)