The Hardest Part About Being a Teacher5 min read
On my very first day as a teacher, I met a boy named Dave. Dave was that kid who kept his head down in the back of the room and hid behind his long hair and expressionless face. I soon found out that Dave was in foster care, and heard his backstory of abuse and suffering. As an ambitious new teacher determined to engage every single student who walked into my classroom, I fought hard to win Dave’s trust and attention. I’d sit down and talk to him regularly. I would comment on his clothes and ask about his interests. Sometimes I would wait with him at the end of the day at the bus stop.
However, after over a month of this, I wasn’t seeing any progress. Something was keeping this kid cold and isolated, and I took it upon myself to warm him up. I remember a few other, more experienced staff would say stuff to me like, “Good luck with that kid Trevor. He is too far gone, and you just can’t save them all.”
These comments and the sentiment behind them bothered me deeply, I wanted to defy those people. I believed they just didn’t try hard enough. I would not let jaded people prevent me from saving this boy.
And after several months of constantly pouring myself into Dave, he began to talk to me. And then it was like a dam burst, and all of a sudden Dave was alive. He worked hard in class; he began to make friends. Dave came out of isolation.
When he received the first A of his life in my class, I wanted to scream from the mountain tops that there is not a kid a teacher cannot “save” or rescue if we try hard enough.
In fact, I did do that. Here is a video of me telling the story of Dave after my first year of teaching in front of a few thousand other educators:
I had another student named Gerald. Gerald also came from a broken home and unimaginable pain. He usually only got his meals at school, and those were on the days he showed up. Often Gerald’s seat would be empty.
But this kid had a look behind his eyes that told me he desperately wanted to “make it.” He wanted to defy the odds, finish high school, and make something of his life. I spent so much of my energy on this boy. I met him on the weekends to play basketball. I swallowed my pride many times when Gerald would act out in class, knowing that with enough patience, I could see this kid turn a corner. I even expended a lot of my time and energy outside of school, away from Gerald. I carried his burdens home with me, shared them with my wife, and would lose sleep over him.
I was determined to save this boy.
And then one day, Gerald did not show up to school. His cousin had been murdered, and it shattered his world. When he finally showed after being out a week, he cried in my arms and told me how scared he was. I assured him that I have his back and that we’d get through this together.
A couple days later, he dropped out of high school.
The kindness I showed Gerald; my deep questions about his life and family; the endless amount of grace I showed him when he’d steal a phone in class or even cuss me out; the hours spent at home worrying and praying for this kid were not enough to save him. It didn’t suffice to turn his life around and help him finish his education.
Those other teachers were right, I cannot save them all.
This absolutely devastated me. I began to question the purpose of my job and the impact teachers really can have on their students.
You might imagine I’ve got a silver lining coming up soon. Some type of resolution or inspiration I later had about how we can reach every kid.
But this is not that kind of blog post.
In the years since Gerald, I’ve had many other students who entered my classroom distraught and damaged. And while sometimes I have seen dramatic change unfold before my eyes, other times I’d end the school year feeling like a failure. Maybe a kid dropped out. Or did not pass my class. Or left their time with me hating the subject just as much or even more. Sometimes at the end of the year, I’d find out a kid even despised me.
These are the hardest parts about being a teacher for me. When I break my back with sweat and blood landscaping my yard, I expect the end result to be a beautiful yard. When I pour everything I have into the students in my classroom, I cannot guarantee the outcome. I can’t ensure the result will be beautiful. I think this difficult reality is shared by every teacher and person who works with kids. And it’s been enough at times to make me want to get out of education. All of the love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and work will not save or transform every student
But it can for some of them.
And this fact is why I did not quit when I saw a student I care about fail. I’ve seen enough students transform before my eyes throughout the years- grow in confidence, adopt a hopeful view of the world- to know that love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and hard work is worth giving.
So while you can’t save them all, you can still love them all. And show every student respect. And strive to engage them in your class. And let them know their potential for greatness.
Whether this causes them to overcome their past or not is not for us to decide. But the potential makes it all worth it.
As you navigate through this season of unknown with your students, trust that your efforts are worth it. Figuring out how to teach virtually is worth it. Checking in with your students, finding creative ways to engage them, and staying committed to their growth is worth it.
Thank you for not throwing in the towel. During this covid crisis, you are doing the important work of steering our young people through it, despite the fact that you are also steering yourselves and families through it as well. To me, that’s heroic.