When You’re That Person…

It’s been a long few weeks. And, truthfully, those long few weeks have nothing to do with the kids. It rarely, if ever, has anything to do with them. When you pick this profession—or, if the profession picks you—the best part of your day is in that classroom, literally watching magic happen right in front of your eyes.

I saw that magic this week when watching my ninth graders struggle a bit with formulating an outline for their argument research papers. When I saw them struggling, I went into a colleague’s classroom. She’s someone who is “that person” (more on that later); she’s an amazing teacher and has this brilliant ability to connect to all kids. I asked for her bins. Those bins are filled with loose parts. I opened up the bins filled with playdoh, coins, rocks, small figurines, pipe cleaners, and so much more. I told the class to build their argument and be ready to explain it.

Magic happened. The kids constructed their arguments, realizing what parts needed more information or to be addressed. One saw that he needed a counterclaim. Another saw that she needed more evidence. They were excited. They were having fun. And, most importantly, they got it. The next day, they finished their outlines.

Those are the magic moments. Those are the moments that keep me coming back. With the help of my one colleague and friend, my students were able to progress in not only a meaningful way, but a fun way.

But, it has been a long few weeks.

It’s easy to sit here and write about how teachers should act. It’s easy to write that you should always mute the naysayers. It’s easy to write that you shouldn’t care what people do or say about you and that you should always prioritize and fight for kids. It’s easy write that you should share plans, share successes, and share failures. It’s easy to write that you should give your all, do more, be more, and always do what’s best for kids. It’s easy to say that you should give redos, second chances, and always find the why in a kid’s behavior.

All of that is easy to write.

And, truthfully, all of it is relatively easy to do. When you are truly about the kids, it all sort of flows naturally. You can be that person who allows for second chances. You can be that person who allows for failure so that kids can not only learn the skills, but learn how to persevere and problem solve in life. You can be that person who will listen, wipe away tears, and give pep talks. You can be that person who is constantly looking for better ways to teach your kids. You can be that person who is willing to share ideas, talk ideas through, and work together so that the tiniest sliver of an idea becomes this big, amazing experience for kids. You can be that person who gives time outside of the classroom, either advising clubs, showing up at a kid’s charity event, or just by simply talking to a kid rather than going out to lunch.

But, sometimes I feel like I make this sound too simple. It should be this simple, but it most definitely is not. When you choose to be “that person” it comes with its burden. That burden definitely does not outweigh all of the good you will do for kids, but it is a burden nonetheless.

Like every bit of social media, writing about education can sometimes become a highlight reel. Case in point is the introduction to this piece. There was the problematic beginning, the solution with the help of a trusted ally, and then the triumphant outcome. None of that narrative included the very real story about the struggle for the first day and a half, the looks from teachers as you searched for materials, and my internal uneasiness of being the English Department Coordinator, a person who writes about writing instruction, and someone who prides himself on being able to teach anyone is asking for help from a colleague.

And, none of that included the meeting with an upset teenager that happened right before this class or a new form of backlash coming from the naysayers–the people who shouldn’t have ever been in this profession from the beginning.

So, I have been thinking that it is almost unfair that I ask someone to be “that person” without giving fair warning. I feel like I have already done that to my colleague and friend–the one who saved me with her bin–because she faces the burden every day, whether it is through sarcastic comments, being excluded, or just outright disrespect. I feel like I am already starting to do that to a teacher who will be joining the ranks quite soon. This person is a natural—light years ahead of where I was during year one, let alone as a student teacher–and has the mindset that will be loved by kids.

When you are “that person”, there are certain things you must accept. When you are “that person”, you will be given labels. You’ll get labels that are meant to degrade you. You’ll be told that you are too close to administration, that you are a suck up. You will be told that because you are willing to try a new program, take on a new challenge, buy into a vision, and not fight change that you are someone’s lackey. You will be told that your intentions are not about kids and more about you wanting to be liked by your bosses. And, even worse, you will be told that you shouldn’t care so much.

The first time you get the label, it will sting. You may even want to reverse course. It isn’t easy to fight against an uncertain mob. You’ll definitely feel some sadness. Isolation can be lonely. But, as you continue to walk your path, it gets easier. You find one or two—or even a whole group—of like minded teachers who share the same goal of making a school better for kids. When you find another “that person”, you begin to harness your strength against the labels to the point where it simply doesn’t matter.

When you’re that person, you are subject to the rumor mill. People will talk about you in a sort of Game of Thrones way. They will project your perceived end game and have those teacher lounge discussions about your motives and what is next for your career. Even worse, some may even talk about those fallacies with their students. Those rumors, at first, are hurtful. When your intentions and integrity are questioned, it is difficult to remain calm. But, the rumors fade away with new ones getting crafted seemingly each week. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times, according to the rumors, that I was going to be the next assistant principal of our school or even a director in central office. To this day, those rumors still get made up despite my very public acknowledgement that I do not have my administration certificate nor will I ever attain one.

Those rumors go even beyond the typical administration crossover thing. I’ve supposedly been spoken to by my union a bunch of times, as recently as last week about my being “too close” to administration. Thing is, I have never been spoken to by my union. You want to know why? Our union is about educating kids and making sure we are professional. Doing what’s best for kids, working to support a district’s vision isn’t a violation of any contract. Yet, even 21 years into the profession, the people who like to spin stories will put things like that out there. None of it is true. All of this is done in an effort to silence you, to make you feel small, and to extinguish your passion for the profession.

When you are that person, you will most definitely get your share of negative comments. It usually starts in a passive aggressive way; “why are you doing that? It’s not going to make a difference.” They’ll scrutinize until they find something you did wrong. Maybe you accidentally left your copies behind. Or, maybe you decided to have kids write down their ideas on post its and plaster them on a door in a storage room. You’ll hear remarks about how you are messing up the storage room, rather than the acknowledgement that you just got a group of writers to generate over 100 ideas in about five minutes. You’ll be called ridiculous for taking the time to personalize something for a kid.

And, unfortunately, it is worse for the newer teachers coming in. You’ll be called various forms of “youthfully arrogant”, a label I received from my colleague during my first year of teaching. I was angry with that label when I got it because I was trying to start a one on one after school program for kids in one of my struggling classes. This teacher called me that in a team meeting, eliciting laughs from the rest. “You’ll realize that you’re wrong once you’re in this game for a while.” Because I was looking to do something different and something extra, a colleague found a way to chop me down. Any time we want to do something differently, we will face those comments. We’ll be told that we just don’t get it. We’ll be told that “these kids” can’t. We’ll be told that we’ll learn.

Well, I must be a damn slow learner because 21 years later, I am still the same person looking to create things, seeing the best in kids, and wanting to change things for the better. Honestly, there was a period of time in my career where the negativity did silence me and I thought I wanted out of the profession. Thankfully, I found my way. The kids always kept me there. No matter how jaded I was at the time, I always found the 45 minutes with them the best part of my professional day. And, I was reinvigorated because I found myself surrounded with some people who had these types of beliefs and had faith in me. They were some department colleagues, friends who taught other subjects down the hall. And, yes, administrators.

So, I write this not just to vent about these long few weeks filled with remarks, looks, rumors, and negativity. Instead, the larger purpose is for those who are going through this now, at an early part of your career or those who are just beginning your career. I want you to mute the naysayers. I want you to continue to push our profession. I want you to keep doing really cool, innovative things with kids. I want you to give kids second chances, put the emphasis on learning, not a grade. I want you to actually have relationships with the kids, rather than telling them that “they don’t pay me to care,” which is something I heard told to a group of kids this week. For the record, they do, indeed, pay you to care, but they shouldn’t have to bribe you in order to have human decency.

Keep being that person. Despite the noise from those who will always look to chop you down because they don’t measure up, it is worth it. It is worth being asked to dispel rumors. It is worth not being invited to lunch. It is worth those snide comments. It is worth being constantly questioned about why you are doing something that isn’t like “how we’ve always done it”. It is worth being mocked for working with administration in order to realize a vision. It’s even worth having your intentions and integrity questioned by those people who believe teachers and admins cannot be friends.

It’s worth it because we are making our profession better so that we can better serve kids. The kids are worth it. The kids deserve it.

Don’t let them stop you. But, be forewarned, they will never stop either. We just have keep moving forward together. As we keep being that person, more will join us. We may not outnumber those negative people right now, but we can certainly relegate them to irrelevancy soon enough. And, then, one day, we will most definitely outnumber them as more and more enter the profession. Right now, we are “that person” in a tidal wave of negativity. Soon enough, it’ll be us with those negative, insecure people simply fading away.

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