Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Smallest Moments

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the hardest parts of teaching. It was tough to write because I did not want it to be seen as negative or a complaint; I wanted it to be a love letter to all of the teachers I know who strive and struggle to love those students who don't love themselves. It's rare that I feel I've accomplished my goal in writing, but I did. I knew it from the love I received back from all of you.

What we do is hard -- so very hard -- in ways that a college course or internship or even the world's greatest teacher cannot show you. The struggle is day in, day out, and it can be wearing. The burn out rate for teachers, especially new teachers, is astonishingly, exorbitantly high.

But it is worth it -- so very worth it -- in those small moments that no one else gets to see. Those moments that no camera crew wants to film, that no headline will ever be written about, that no legislator notices.

Today was a benchmark testing day for writing, a practice exam for the big standardized test my students will take in about 6 weeks. Because there are two state tests in my grade level subject (writing and reading), my students get a little worn out with the sheer number of tests (and practice tests) they endure each year. This morning, when I went into the four classrooms where my students were sitting, I tried to remind them of all the things that I expected they could (and would) do.

Today, this was the hardest part for me; instilling confidence in the unsure and unwilling.

I went on about my morning, checking in on all of the classes, relieving teachers and monitoring kids, seeing some small but reassuring work on their test booklets.  In my math teacher's classroom, I noticed one of my students hard at work on the first of his essays. His planning pages were full of charts and maps and... well... planning.

I was legitimately surprised. This is a student who, even on his best day, shies away from intensive work. He can be very sweet for sure. His smile can light up the whole room when he wants. But he gives up. He sulks. He has been known to make a poor decision or two, mainly in anger. He often loses faith in his own abilities, and so he struggles to simply try. Our relationship has lacked consistency and flow, stumbling through the growing pains of a child becoming a young man.

He didn't even look up to see me see him as I walked down the aisle and gave him a pat on the back. I was overjoyed at his effort and focus.

I continued to watch him as I waited for Ms. Doud to come back from her lunch break. Not only did he plan, but I watched him moving his lips as he silently read his essay, orally rehearsing it, inspecting it for missing words or errors and making sure it didn't lack consistency and flow. He still had not noticed me, noticing him.

And then, as he finished, I watched a slow smile spread across his face, and he gave just the slightest little fist pump. Like this:

It wasn't for show. It wasn't to throw me off his track. It wasn't an attempt to make himself feel better. It was simply the smallest celebration of what he felt was a job well done. In fact, when I pulled him out of his last class of the day to tell him how proud I was -- how genuinely thankful I was -- he had no idea he'd even done it.

But I knew. And his math teacher, Ms. Doud, knew because I had to tell someone as soon as it happened. She also knew because he was so proud of his essay, he wanted her to read it right away.

And the history teacher on my team, Mrs. Witt, knew because I took her with me so I could brag on him in front of someone else. I wanted someone he didn't know; someone whose respect and congratulations would be received with sincerity and not the suspicion it was made of simple kindness or empty cheerleading.

And now you all know it too because this is also my love letter to you, my friends. These are the moments that we build together. These are the moments that make the man, so to speak.

It was one of those smallest moments that bring the greatest joy if only we take the time to stop and look around for it. One of those smallest moments that no camera crew or legislator will ever see. But that's okay because those moments aren't for them. They're for him. They're for me. And they're for all of you.

And those are the moments that turn the tables and make the hardest parts, the most dreadful days, the biggest growing pains, seem the smallest indeed.

So, for each of you, for all of you, I'm sending you a slightly bigger, more fantastic, fist pump.

Keep going, y'all.