Appreciation, Lessons Learned, And Some Amazing Kids

My Father just retired this week. After a lifetime of working for our family, being our rock, and always being willing to have a catch with us after work, the man gets to start another lifetime. We’ll be celebrating later in the summer, but last night we took him out to dinner as a family. With his wife–who he has been dating since they were 14 years old–his three kids, his son in-law and daughter in-law, and his four grandchildren surrounding him, we laughed a lot and celebrated his 44 years of work.

The night was supposed to be about my father. But, as he always does, he flipped the script. He paid tribute to us, his family. He thanked us for being the reason he got up in the morning, the reason for him getting through the tough days, the bad jobs, and all of the other frustrations with work. It was beautiful.

On the drive home, I began to reflect on that tribute and another conversation I had earlier in the week, which was about Teacher Appreciation Day (which is Tuesday, May 7th). This amazing teacher was planning on doing something for her colleagues, something that struck me as incredible. And, it’s true; the great teachers do a lot of anonymous work, doing the little things to make kids’ lives just a bit better. We care more than just disseminating curriculum. We aren’t in it for the accolades, but so many people are worthy of them. I was inspired by her desire to recognize others, to show them that they are making a difference for kids.

So, the two scenes were playing out in my head, which led me to thinking about my students. Like my father, I look at my job through the lens of finding a purpose. His purposes were his family, making others around him better, and being willing to do anything he asked others to do. Mine are largely the same. My daughter, my loved ones, and making a difference in kids’ lives. Without the kids, there is no purpose.

I have been saying quite a bit lately that I have the best job. It’s true. I get to work with some of the best kids in the world. Despite the world constantly telling them all that they are not, this group of kids continues to be amazing. They continue to be kind. They continue to learn, grow, challenge the standard, and discover new things. They do all of this despite an increasingly chaotic world and all of the negativity surrounding them. It is a privilege to say that I work with them every day. It is a privilege to be a small part of their lives. I feel like I get much more out of our relationship than they get from me. They continue to inspire me, each and every day.

Instead of celebrating me and our profession, I would like to do what my father does. I would like to pay tribute to some of the amazing young people I have been able to work with this year.

Erika

There are certain students who stand out because of their spirit, because of their willingness to give. They are genuinely good people who just so happen to be in high school. I never got to be Erika’s English Teacher, which is most definitely my loss. But, I have gotten to know her through my role as the National Honor Society Adviser. Erika was elected President last June and will be graduating this June. She is one of those people who can just make you smile. There’s always a kind word. There’s always a kind email. There’s always just a random visit just to say hi because she feels like she hasn’t in a few days.

But, what makes Erika special is her heart. She is a natural leader because she always wants to make a person’s life better. She’s one of the leaders of our Best Buddies group. But, that’s an understatement. Erika genuinely loves her buddies, often bringing them to school dances, choosing to sit with them at the Senior luncheon, making a group of students not only feel included, but to genuinely feel loved.

It actually goes beyond that. Never, in 21 years of teaching, have I seen a student who not only works hard in the classroom, but has a drive to do so many things. She works a part time job, she’s a dancer, and yet she’ll be the one to do all of the National Honor Society things that I forget to do. Despite being so busy, she is always smiling and is always willing to help. She never asks for credit, avoids accolades, and never lets anyone down.

In the year-plus that I have gotten to know Erika, I have learned that no matter how busy you feel or how tired you may think you are, we can erase those negatives by doing things for others, by being a positive force in someone’s life. This year, I have found myself saying yes to a lot of projects just to help people. That is definitely Erika’s influence. I am a better person, a better teacher, and a better friend because of Erika.

Delvi

Delvi is someone I just met in March, yet he has made such an impact on my life. He’s a member of my freshman baseball team and one of our best pitchers. At first, I was a bit intimidated by him. It wasn’t anything he did; that’s on me. You see, Delvi has only been in the United States for 14 months and, as a 14 year old, he is learning English for the first time. I didn’t know if I was going to communicate with him, other than relying on my catcher to translate.

But, Delvi is relentless. On the field, he outworks everyone, yet he is someone who, when I peak over, I see him showing other pitchers his techniques. In the classroom, he is one of the best students in his English class. While he is uncomfortable speaking, he pushes himself every day. He interacts with his teammates; he cheers on the bench, often cracking a joke that loosens the team up. When he is pitching, he’ll laugh at himself when he makes a bad pitch, showing all of the other players how to react when things don’t go perfectly.

More impressively, Delvi will come to me before and after each practice or game, shake my hand and say hello. He nods his head out of respect. When I told him that I was getting tutored to learn how to speak a little Spanish, he said, “It’s ok. I’m learning. We good.”

Delvi has taught me that no matter how much the odds may seem to be against you, hard work, dignity, and the ability to laugh at yourself can overcome anything. Here’s a kid away from his home, learning a new language, yet he is galvanizing a team. He communicates to me in English every single day because he wants to. There are so many times in our lives when we think we can’t overcome seemingly unfair situations. Delvi will forever be my example of someone who will walk into any situation and smile.

The Kindergarten Kids

One of the highlights of my entire year has been our District’s Pineapple Challenge. This was an opportunity to see different teachers in their classrooms, while also opening my own door to others. I was able to add tools to my toolbox because I was able to see so many experts doing their craft.

An opportunity arose for me to visit a kindergarten class. And, I have to say, I am so grateful that I said yes to that invitation. I saw an amazing teacher do an interactive writing lesson with her class. The kids had incredible ideas as they each took turns writing their book. At the lesson’s end, they even asked me great questions about the book I had just finished writing. I was struck by their enthusiasm, their love for their teacher, their teacher’s love for them, and their kindness. I left the room feeling hopeful. Kindergarten kids were thinking about big ideas with writing. They were genuinely nice kids and loved being in that classroom. I promised them I would come back.

Group Picture Excitement

A couple weeks later, I made good on that promise, this time coming with Munchkins. But, first, they asked me to read a book. Their choice? The Book With No Pictures, written by The Office’s BJ Novak. As I sat in front of them, their eyes were wide. They were excited. The couldn’t wait. When I asked them to help, they were more than eager. After reading, we had laundry basket races, danced, and then had munchkins. When I didn’t know the class procedures, a kid would always help. When it was time for a group picture, well, you can see for yourself. There was joy, there was a comfort of knowing they could express their happiness. And, that was all because of their teacher.

Through this, I was reminded that a teacher genuinely loving their students like their teacher does is the single most important thing in education. We can talk standards, we can talk college process, and we can talk about pushing kids. But, without kids feeling safe and free to be themselves, none of it matters. Their teacher has given them that gift during their first year of school. Those amazing kids’ first experience in school has been filled with love, acceptance, and learning. They are positive about school because they were lucky enough to get one of those great, special teachers. This makes a difference and it is our job to do the same, no matter what grade level we teach.

Kindergarten: Doing Something To Make The World A Better Place

With that love, you can help kids realize that the world is bigger than just their classrooms. Just this week, these amazing kids were outside cleaning up the grounds in celebration of Earth Day. And, they weren’t going through the motions; they worked. Even more impressive, was their drive to do more afterwards. Their teacher asked them what they could to get other kids involved. The class decided to make a poster campaign. These are kindergarten students caring about something larger than all of us. They are involved and trying to make a difference. If you want kids of any age to care, you must care. You must continually remind them that you care and show them that it is ok for them to express their feelings. The kids taught me that there is a genuine joy in everyone and that it is the teacher’s responsibility to keep that joy. They reminded me that all kids, no matter their age or circumstances care about things, are passionate about things. We must create an environment so they can be those awesome kids. Kids don’t want to come to school negative. I learned that in Kindergarten, from an incredible group of students and one truly gifted and amazing teacher.

My Frosh

One of the perks of being the English Department Coordinator is that I make the department schedule. After teaching mostly 10th and 11th grade for the past five years, I thought it would be a good idea to teach freshman once again. But, I’ll be honest; I was a bit nervous. I had a good connection with my sophomores–who are amazing this year, too–and always had strong relationships with juniors. After not teaching 9th grade for so long, I was worried that it might be a challenge to connect.

I remember feeling nervous on the first day of school. I was overthinking what I was going to say. I was conscious of the fact that I would be their first ever high school English Teacher. I wanted to make them love writing.

I walked into class and saw 25 pretty nervous faces. They were nervous, which calmed me down. They were quiet, which, looking back, is pretty funny because we have become the loudest class in our hallway. I made two promises that day: there would never be homework and that this will be their favorite class.

From there, we forged this unique relationship. I would put myself out there as a teacher, taking chances on lessons like I never had before. I have said on many occasions, even as recently as last week, that the lesson we are going to do would either be the best thing we ever did or a miserable failure. But, I was willing to risk it for them. They would go all in on anything I would ask of them. From early on, they always gave a vibe that would allow me to be daring in the room, to push the limits of what I would try to do.

When we were learning about perspective in writing, I had this crazy idea right in the middle of class to drive the point home. It was September, so we were still getting to know each other. But, I thought it would work. And, I thought they needed something dramatic to get them to really get it. So, without warning, I hopped out of the window (it’s the ground level), ran to my car, got a pack of gum, and came back in. They were stunned. But, then, I asked them what happened. They each had a variation of the story. The stories, while based in truth, had different perspectives. Then it clicked for them. They were able to get over the shock value of their teacher hopping out of the window and synthesize the purpose of the lesson. As the bell rang, they said they understood. We came back the next day and they proved it in their writing.

From that crazy beginning, we got to know each other through conversations and their writing. I learned that Jade could write humor well and is one of the most genuine kids I know. I learned that Jazelle is an amazing, poetic writer who actually wants to be a writer. I learned that Javian has a work ethic in the classroom that is unmatched. Max is a deep thinker and discussion provoker. Katie, Daniella, Olivia, and Hailey all care so deeply about their grades, perhaps a little too deeply. But, they work for every success they get, never taking a short cut. Jessica doesn’t know just how brilliant and how great of a leader she really is. Alex may say he doesn’t care, but he is one of the hardest working kids. Brandon has the ability to ask the right, tough question, yet has a sensitivity that puts everyone around him at ease. Alexis, Connor, Daniel, Evan, Gabe, Owen, and Vin may be on the quiet side, but they have such amazing thoughts, such unique interests, and are always willing to push themselves in their writing or in discussions. London is one of the most creative kids I have ever been around. Isabella doesn’t yet know how smart she really is. Lidia, Brianna, and Leysa are not only intelligent, but they are compassionate and always willing to help anyone. Danielle has the greatest laugh ever and can write a suspenseful story like a pro. Neive may be the kindest person I have ever met and has a level of sensitivity in her writing like nobody else.

I’ve learned from them how to deal with challenges, pressure, and expectations. You see, they are entering high school at a time where everything seems to be about the number and getting to the next level. They face pressure from everywhere. They are often told that 90’s aren’t good enough. They must take all advanced placement courses. Yet, this group is wise enough to question that. We’ve taken time to have those discussions in class. They aren’t afraid to talk about their fears, their stress, and their desire to have a balance. They don’t want to give up cheerleading, dance, sports, or any activity that they are passionate about. It’s not that they aren’t willing to do the work, but they seek balance. And, they are succeeding. They are almost done with their freshman year and have a good perspective on their career. They know they have to work hard. But, they also are starting to realize they are more than just a number. Even though the system challenges them, they maintain their dignity and perspective. As a teacher who will always be vocal about reform, this is a lesson that will help me out each and every day.

But, this class is much more than that. They are special. They are open about their feelings, their problems, and their humor. The world says that their generation isn’t engaged, they don’t care about things, and would rather do anything but read. Yet, each day, they come in ready to talk. They come in with issues that they are passionate about. They come in and devour novels, poetry, short stories, or whatever I throw at them. The world says that they can’t be independent, yet whenever I have to handle something in another room or a department issue comes up, they continue to work without my supervision.

And, the world tells them that they don’t care about anything outside of themselves. Yet, I see them helping others without expecting anything in return. And, I see them putting their hearts on their sleeves every single day.

I experienced this first hand. Earlier in the year, the subject of my birthday came up. I told them that it’s not a big deal. Well, they didn’t like that answer so they took it upon themselves to find out. Somehow, they did. I was in the middle of AP testing during that week. But, I didn’t want to miss their class so I didn’t schedule tests during that period. I walked into the room and they erupted into singing happy birthday. Then, I was stunned; they planned a party. Jade brought in a cake. So many of them brought in snacks. I couldn’t believe they found out, yet alone plan a party.

But, then it became like a movie.

London got up and gave a speech about how our class taught her to love English and that she could express herself. I teared up. Brandon got up and gave a speech about how this was more than a class and that he was lucky to be able to a part of it. I was tearing up more. One by one, they went to the podium and gave a speech. The tears flooded. Here was a group of teenagers sharing their feelings in an open, intimate way. And, then, they presented me with a card with some of the most beautiful messages. Again, they were open and willing to express themselves. They were vulnerable. When the bell rang, every single one of them lined up and gave me a hug. It took me a while to compose myself.

This special group has taught me that it is essential that we be open, honest, and vulnerable with our students. I’ve always tried to be that person, but this class has brought something even more out of me. We must be willing to express our feelings and create an environment where it’s alright for them to do the same. I am a better teacher, but more importantly a better person because I have the privilege to share a classroom with this special group of 25 freshmen.

Final Thought

I do have the best job in the world. I work with amazing kids each and every day. These are just four stories from an incredible year. In many ways, it has been one of those magical years. Between my unbelievable sophomores who do amazing things both in and out of the classroom, to my favorite kindergarten class, to my baseball team, to people like Erika, to my fabulous freshmen, year 21 has not only been my best year, it has been a year when I have learned so much from my students. I am beyond grateful for all of them.


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