I get asked all the time why I teach. I never know exactly how to answer that question, so I usually say something sarcastic like, “Because I’m a huge fan of hearing myself repeat the same thing, ten times, in three minutes,” or “Because of summer break, obviously.”
When I first started my teaching career, there was a 13-year-old boy in my morning class who I’ll call Danny. At least three times a week, Danny showed up an hour late to my class. He was always behind, never quite knew what was going on, and his late work caused extra work for me. Frankly, his behavior annoyed me. Every time he showed up late, I assumed he didn’t care, he wasn’t responsible, and he didn’t respect me.
One day I asked him, “Danny, why are you always late?” He shrugged and said nothing. I waited for a response. Finally he sighed and said, “My mom got this new boyfriend, and whenever she stays the night at his place, no one is home to make sure my little brother gets on the bus. I make sure he’s awake and get him on his bus, but that means I miss my bus and have to walk.” I asked, “How far is your house from school?” He said, “It’s a little over a mile.”
Then it hit me! Danny IS responsible. Danny DOES care. Danny DOES value his education.
You see, whenever Danny was late, he would also miss the cafeteria’s free breakfast and go hungry until lunch. He was frustrated with his mom, behind in his classes and hungry. After that, when Danny showed up late, instead of greeting him with a detention slip, I greeted him with a genuine smile and a granola bar. Danny had humbled me. But to be completely honest, I still get humbled by my students daily. They’ve made me realize over the years that I’m not perfect. I can be impatient. Sometimes I’m too quick to judge a situation.
I teach simply because I get to ask kids “why” every day. I ask them, “Why are you late? Why aren’t you doing your work? Why do you want to sleep in my class? Why are you so afraid to take a risk? Why don’t you trust adults?” And sometimes ridiculous questions like, “Why are you hiding in my closet? Why did you think it was a good idea to throw your shoe out the window?” Teachers don’t ask “why” to be punitive and shame kids. We ask “why” because it’s an opportunity to treat students like human beings worthy of love and respect. Those “whys” show kids that we care, that they’re worthy, that they matter, and that they’re safe. We ask why, and then we listen ... we really listen to these kids.
For at least eight hours a day (sometimes much more), I have the privilege of treating my students like people – not like test scores, not like paychecks, not like one big group of student clones. In each class, I have 30 Danny’s. Each kid shows up with their own individual baggage, and I get one year to try and help them unpack it. When a kid trusts you enough to take a risk in your classroom and let you in, that’s a victory I can’t even begin to put into words.
Teaching isn’t about the curriculum, the common core, the SBACs, or the pay for performance ladders. For me, teaching is about being that one consistent adult in a kid’s life. It’s about that moment when you see a kid grasp a concept they’ve struggled with for days, weeks, or even months. It’s about the look in their eyes when something clicks. It’s about the pride students feel when they turn in a project they were excited to work on. It’s about a student begging, “Ms. Macey, pleeeeease just read one more chapter, the story is so good!” It’s about the smile that crosses a kids’ face when you hand them back an assignment with an ‘A’ written on the top and they learn for the first time what it feels like to be successful.
I still fail every single day. I sometimes handle situations the wrong way or I say the wrong thing. I may snap at a kid who doesn’t necessarily deserve it. Yes, I get frustrated sometimes, but I will never quit. I have to teach kids like Danny not to give up – to stick it out, face the adversity and rise above it. I’m human and I’m flawed. But as a teacher, I receive redemption every day. I lead by example and show kids how to come back from their mistakes. Every class is a fresh start and a new opportunity to do a little bit better than I did last time.
Every single kid deserves a chance to make it. As teachers, we get to help them realize that education is the springboard that’ll remove them from any situation they came from and take them anywhere they want to go. Teaching isn’t about me. It’s bigger than me, and it’ll always be that way. Teaching isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. That’s why I teach.