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This is Why I Teach: Inspiring Jake

Did you get a chance to read my Teaching is a Grind post?  In it, I shared the ugly truth that a career in education ain't all sunshine and candycorn.

The bit clearly resonated with readers, racking up more comments -- both here and on the Center for Teaching Quality site -- than any post I've written in a long, long time.  Most commenters were grateful that I was willing to express feelings that most educators rarely share in public forums.

No commenter has left me thinking more than Sylvia Umstead, who wrote:

You seem so unhappy.  Why didn't you leave years ago?  What's keeping you in this profession?

My initial reaction to Sylvia's post was heartbreaking.  "Who knows?!" I thought.  Working in a state that is systematically gutting public education one bad policy at a time REALLY DOES make it difficult to be happy on a day-to-day basis -- and as a guy who has worked to build a consulting career beyond the classroom, leaving honestly would be easier than staying.

The answer to Sylvia's question, though, rolled through my classroom door at 7:45 AM the next morning in the form of a boy that I'll call Jake*.  

Jake comes from a tough neighborhood where simply making ends meet often takes priority over success in school for most parents and students.  At the beginning of the school year, he brought a fat attitude and a thousand behavior problems to every class period.  He was defiant.  He was disrespectful to everyone.  He slept through classes, mouthed off to substitute teachers, and argued with anyone willing to listen.

#sheeshchat

What he didn't realize, though, is that he'd been assigned to a team with three caring male teachers who weren't going to let him off the hook that easily.  Together, we tag-teamed Jake -- calling him out when he was inappropriate, coaching him up in the hallway when he needed some redirection, and celebrating every small success that he had while in our rooms.

We bought him supplies when he needed them.  We showed up at the community center near his home for awards ceremonies where he was being recognized.  We turned him into a mentor for another boy living in his neighborhood who needed some help.  We joked with him and made him laugh and gave him hugs when he needed them.

I think we caught him by surprise -- and when we finally convinced him that we genuinely cared about him, he became a different kid. 

He pays attention and participates in every class now.  His homework is always finished.  He comes to school smiling -- including for all SIX of the Saturday makeup days that we had this year due to school cancellations.  He reaches out to us every morning -- coming to find us just to touch base.  Sometimes he asks us for help with homework.  Sometimes he wants to make playful bets with us on upcoming sporting events.  Sometimes he just sits next to us, saying nothing but listening to everything.  It's almost like he wants to be SURE that we are still there for him and happy to see him.

Jake is why I remain in the classroom. 

He's a physical reminder that despite the crap coming out of our state's legislature, teaching remains one of the few professions where you can make a real difference in someone else's life.  Had we written him off as a kid who was beyond help -- something society is all-too-ready to do for kids like Jake AND something that would have been REALLY easy if you'd seen him in the first few weeks of the school year -- who knows what he would have become.

Instead, by investing in him -- by constantly reminding him that we care about who he is and have high hopes for who he can be -- we've made school a safe place and success as a learner something that Jake can embrace and believe in.  That investment will pay off for him.  It might even change his life's trajectory and give him a better chance at breaking out of the cycle of poverty that brings so many of today's students down.

Jake is a huge win.  He's the reason that I keep on grinding.

Jake is why I teach.

#TeachingIs

*Name changed to protect Jake's identity. 

____________________

Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  They Don't Judge Me By a Test

This is Why I Teach:  They Are Learning From Me

This is Why I Teach:  They Still Dream

 

4 Comments

Rho commented on May 7, 2014 at 8:31pm:

Why I Teach

I have spent the better part of the year trying to help one of my juniors fight through his anger and lousy behavior issues. Have made big progress with him by being patient, consistent,and fair. Last Friday he erupted, yelling and throwing his desk to the ground and slamming out of the room with a F*** all of you. I felt like crying. He came in before school on Monday morning and put his arm around me and apologized. He has NEVER done that before and then I really felt like crying! Maybe he won't remember much of American Literature but have I taught him something--something that isn't on the list for my evaluations-oh, yes, I am a teacher!

Bill Ferriter commented on May 8, 2014 at 3:01pm:

You win, Rho!

You win, Rho!

No matter what the evaluations say -- and no matter what score that boy earns on his standardized tests -- you win.  

Getting kids to wrestle with their own humanity -- and to realize that people care about who they are -- is often the most important lesson we can teach.

Thanks for sharing, 

Bill

Deidra Gammill commented on May 7, 2014 at 10:51pm:

Bookends

Bill,

What a lovely bookend for last week's post. Together they create such a complete picture of the ying & yang of a teaching career. I'm sure many of us have had Jakes (and Jills) who challenged us and inspired us, who kept us in our classrooms despite all the balderdash handed down from on high. Thank you for sharing Jake with us. I've got a Drew* I'd love to send your way - mother issues have made him a misogynist and therefore impervious to my teacher superpowers, but he desperately needs strong male role models to invest in him. Your story reminded me that while I can't "save" him, I need to advocate for him with the male teachers I know. 

Looking forward to next week's post. 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on May 9, 2014 at 6:41pm:

Deidra wrote:

Deidra wrote:

Thank you for sharing Jake with us. I've got a Drew* I'd love to send your way - mother issues have made him a misogynist and therefore impervious to my teacher superpowers, but he desperately needs strong male role models to invest in him. Your story reminded me that while I can't "save" him, I need to advocate for him with the male teachers I know. 

-----------------------

Such an important point, Deidra:  While we may not be able to save every kid, someone in our school certainly can.  Our goal is to advocate even if we can't rescue -- to figure out just who the RIGHT caring adult is for every struggling kid in our care. 

#neededthat

Have a great weekend,

Bill

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