26 February 2010

The Heart of a Teacher

This particular school year has been an onerous one for me: being the transfer teacher in a school where I still don't know half of the employees' names because the building is that large, the adjustment to working in a trailer with 21 students on my roster, being stood up by multiple parents for our parent/teacher conferences, learning and relearning regulations and statutes for student interventions and the paperwork that goes along with them, attempting to keep the school day as normal as possible when there is no power or heat running to my mobile unit…

So somewhere between parents creating drama and the government trying to decide if they would rather furlough teachers or shut down schools to save on the budget lies my sanity and my passion for education.

I realize that the above list may not look like a lot to those whose jobs entail cracking open someone's chest for a bypass or withstanding below-freezing temperatures on the open ocean to catch several tons of halibut, but those examples barely scratch the surface of my perpetual torment as a public servant. When your personal mantra morphs from "I love my line of work" to "all I want to do is teach," you know your job as an educator is more than a little out of whack.

But yesterday morning, one of my 3rd graders exhibited emotion so pure that it cut right through any feelings of bitterness I had been harboring since my transfer. The dainty girl approached my table as I was stacking narrative writing samples to be assessed later. She leaned her belly against the edge of my table, touched her fingers to her shoulders, staging them for her soon-to-come gesticulations, drew in a deep breath to prepare her lungs for her typical long-windedness and began to expel words faster than a squirrel on her fifth cup of coffee. I prepared myself, too, with quick responses for her usual rapid-fire line of questioning while I continued to shuffle and stack papers.

"Mrs. Wynne, do you remember last Friday in our tutoring group when we did CRCT practice tests? And how I got all of my answers right? Well, I went home and I showed my mom my practice tests because I was so excited. And she kept telling me all weekend how she was so proud of me for doing such a good job. She even told me how proud of me she was when I was walking up the stairs to my room to go to bed last night. And I told her I was trying really hard to do a good job at school. And Mrs. Wynne?" The little girl paused for a second, dropping her hands from mid-air to my tabletop, making sure I was paying attention to what she was about to say. "I just want to thank you for teaching me everything this year."

There was an instant lump in my throat. Fighting back a tear, I looked right at my student and said, "Hearing words like that make me feel so happy, and I thank you. And I'm proud of you." I held up my hand for a high-five, high enough for her to have to jump up to slap my palm. She giggled as she made the effort, and then returned to her desk to work on her vocabulary assignment.

I had to giggle myself, as this same girl is one who has cried every time I ask her to rewrite, redo, or check back over her work. She's incredibly sensitive and would rather spend time twirling her costume jewelry than read a book. Yet, over the course of the last few weeks, she has turned her focus to writing descriptive narratives, going on "treasure hunts" for vocabulary words in classroom books, and rereading directions in order to understand them more clearly. Her sudden growth and maturity are to be admired, and her confidence is remarkable.

Still stunned, I looked around the classroom at my students while they worked. The girl's words of gratitude brought me back to the feelings I seemed to have been missing, or at least, been numb to, for some time now. In the place of stress and perpetual tiredness, there was peace. Instead of contempt toward the things that are beyond my control, there was love and patience. Rather than a having a sense of there not being enough time to cram everything in, I had a moment to reflect and breathe.

My students may be noisy, squirmy, and difficult to entertain, but they are my students and I am responsible for providing them with more than just knowledge. They turn to me for sense of security, for a place where they can be away from the hardships of their lives at home, for a Band-Aid when they get a paper cut, or for a lame joke when they are down in the dumps. And so I felt it in my moment of respite--appreciated, valued, and needed.

And it started with a child saying--and meaning it when spoken--a simple thank you. Sure sticks and stones may break your bones, but sincere words can melt the heart of a teacher.

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