I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. When I was in third grade, I used to lead an invisible class, writing on the mirror in my bedroom with a dry-erase marker, pretending it was a whiteboard. I wanted to teach because I had great teachers, men and women who inspired me and who taught me that it was okay to be smart, to try hard, and to make some mistakes along the way.
During my senior year of college, I began student teaching in a small school in rural Maine. It was more challenging, teaching actual students, than it had been teaching invisible ones. My supervising teacher, Gary, taught me an important lesson that spring: he taught me that each of my students, regardless of how difficult they may act or how uninterested they may seem, deserve my respect and my attention.
My first job out of college was teaching eighth and ninth grade at a small junior boarding school in New England. Many of my students had never seen success in school. They had been labeled dumb; listless; apathetic. In the beginning, I was frustrated, because that was how they seemed to me, too. How was I supposed to make a difference?
You’ve seen those movies, right? About the teacher who comes into the inner city school, ignites in his or her students a love of learning, and is able to let flow a mighty river of creativity? Yeah, it’s not really that easy. Great teachers understand that unlocking their students’ potential is only half the battle. They — the teachers — have to leave their own prejudices behind. They have to forget what they have been told their students can’t do. They have to give them a second chance.
While I can’t say that, seven years into my teaching career, I have been able to ignite those passions in each and every one of my students, there are a few things I can say. I have tried, as best I can, to be honest with them. I have to tried to listen to them, to meet them where they are, and to ask them to do just a little bit more than they thought they could. I have tried to put aside my own preconceptions and to treat my students with dignity, remembering that their mistakes help to define and shape them as much as their successes do.
There is a lot of hand-wringing in American education today. We fight about merit pay for teachers and No Child Left Behind. We argue about standardized tests, college placement, and grade inflation. Sometimes I think we forget why we’re here. Our job is to provide a foundation for our young people; to help them to dare to be themselves.
It was almost 20 years ago that I was pretending to teach my invisible class. And now that I’m teaching a real one, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
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