Feeling Particularly Sentimental

One of my students asked me once, “Mrs. Steele, what do you teach?”  I stared at her, dumbfounded.  Was this a trick question??  “Science?” I said, sensing this was a deceptively simple trap.  She smiled, shook her head, and said “No, Mrs. Steele, you teach kids.”  Well, of course I do.  Touché, kiddo.

I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn.  And we are led to those who help us most to grow, if we let them and we help them in return.  Well, I don't know if I believe that's true, but I know I'm who I am today because of each and every one of my students.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a teacher is that teaching is all about relationships.  Relationships cannot be one-sided; they’re inherently two-way streets.  That means that I have as much to learn from my students as they do from me.  And I’m not just talking about science.

Students act out.  I think we sometimes forget, however, that they act out for a reason and it’s our challenge to focus on the why and not just what they’re doing or how they’re doing it.  So, let me tell a story of one of my students whom I’ll call Allie, though that isn’t her real name.  Allie was a student who did the bare minimum to get by in school, but I knew she was more than capable.  Our entire staff tried everything we could.  We met with mom, talked to Allie, set expectations and consequences...blah, blah, blah.  Nothing changed.  I kept her after class one day and told her that I cared about her and that I wanted her to succeed.  She nodded and smiled.  And you know what?  Nothing changed.

Exasperated one afternoon, I decided I wanted to try something different.  I told my principal that I wanted to make a home visit.  So, I looked up the address and showed up at the front door of her apartment.  She opened the door with her jaw on the floor and just stared at me for what felt like an eternity.  I finally asked, “Do you know why I’m here?”  She shook her head, clearly dumbfounded as to why her science teacher should be standing in front of her.  My answer was simply, “Because I care.”  And at those three words, I saw the tension fall from her shoulders along with the facade she’d been keeping up.  And behind that facade, standing in front of me was a child breaking down in tears.

I spent five hours that afternoon and evening at her kitchen table doing science, math, and Spanish homework.  I ate dinner with her and her mom.  And over the course of the next several weeks, I learned that dad was not in the picture, though he continually promised to be, and that her relationship with her mother was strained, to say the least.  Finally, it came out that failing to do or turn in work was her cry for help because it was the only thing she felt she had control over.  She was desperate for someone whose actions would match their expressed concern for her.  Allie promoted from junior high, scored proficient on her math, ELA and history exams...and advanced on her science test.

Over the next four years I’d get emails and text messages from her and her mom.  Sometimes I’d just drop by or send a message checking in with her.  I did plenty of algebra, biology, and others throughout high school with her and I was a guest of her family at her high school graduation.  I cried tears of joy, right alongside her mother, as her name was called.  I found out the why and it made all the difference in both of us.  

So, whether you’re a first-year teacher or a 30-year veteran, I challenge you to consider your own why.  Why are you in this profession?  And consider carefully how you choose to live that why every day as you build relationships with the new and familiar faces in your classroom in the coming weeks or months.

And it well may be that I will never meet them again in this lifetime.  But let me say that so much of me is made of what I learned from each of them.  They are with me like a handprint on my heart.  And now whatever way our stories end, I know they have re-written mine by being my students.