A Lesson from Former Students
Years ago, when I was an AP English teacher, I was the teacher that the “smart” kids loathed. “You’re doing too much!” or “You act like this is a college class!” were refrains I heard year after year. At report card time, their parents would question, “How is it that my baby has always gotten A’s in English, but when she gets you, all of a sudden she’s a C student?”
I questioned, too. “Has she ever had to analyze texts as complex as these? Have her previous teachers demanded that she defend an interpretation of author’s intent using, for example, just the author’s use of punctuation as evidence? Has she ever worked as hard as she’s working now?” Those questions, though, were followed by promises: “I promise that if she continues to work like this, she’ll be successful, earning those A’s before this year is out and in college. I promise that you’ll begin to see her write and hear her talk more deeply about texts. I promise that I’ll take care of her. Just trust that I am working harder than she is to ensure that she is successful, not just at this but, ultimately, at life, and that’s the greatest show of commitment and love that I or any teacher can show.”
And every year, when those same kids were freshmen in colleges or universities a few minutes to thousands of miles away, I’d receive those letters and emails talking about how they’d aced this test or speech or essay and how the lessons they’d learned in my class made what they were doing in college seem so easy. I’d read those correspondences aloud to the students who were sitting in my class as inspiration. I’d tell little anecdotes about the author: how this one had earned an F on the first paper, how that one persevered in spite of initial setbacks, how I’d had to drag this one out of basketball practice to attend the extra tutoring session I’d offered but he’d tried to skip. It was fun, satisfying, rewarding work. I loved it, and I was really good at it.
Now as a school leader, I often find myself struggling to avoid pressing that victim button I encouraged so many students to sidestep. I have never struggled so much professionally as I have with this role. When the fruits of your labor aren’t realized when you think they should be, or when your messages for change seem to fall on deaf ears, it’s hard to get up, shake off the dust, and plow full steam ahead. “It’s so much pressure. It’s so hard. I’m not making the difference I got into this work to make,” blast like cannon fire all about me, and the well-meaning but fearful mantras from those I love (“Is this really what you want to do?” “Can’t you just go to another school or district?” “There’s nothing wrong with bowing out gracefully?”) don’t make the work any easier. Then, there’s the lack of balance. Am I spending enough time with my kids? Does my husband feel fulfilled in his marriage? Can I just have a moment of me time? It’s so easy to get sucked into a cycle of self-victimization and comfortable misery.
And then I think back to those brave 15, 16, and 17 year olds all those years ago, who had similar concerns and heard similar messages, but who knew instinctively that they would be better as a result of the experience. They couldn’t attend all the parties. They had to come to the before school, after school, and 6-hour Saturday sessions just to stay afloat. They did the practice tests and extra credit. They wrote and rewrote drafts. They were tired and often frustrated. They sacrificed so much, and they cried. Some of them cried a lot.
But while those hard times weren’t the totality of the experience (we had a great deal of fun, too), the hard times can grate on a person to the point of collapse if one isn’t careful, and there arises the need to rejuvenate the soul, authentically celebrate successes, and breathe in reflective silence.
I’m sitting on my couch, in my favorite spot, with the glow of two Christmas trees, the sounds of drumming and children’s laughter ascending up from the basement, and tip tapping of our aging dog moving about the house, and I’m at peace for the first time in a long time.
“You’ll figure this out with more practice, more feedback, more reflection, and more strategy,” I tell myself. The Daredevil runs and dives on the couch next to me. Between panting breaths, she questions: “Are you almost done with your work?”
“Yes, baby, I am almost done for the night.”
“Great!” She smiles a big honest smile. I can’t help but smile back at her genuine happiness. “Do you know what I like best about this family?”
“No, baby. What?”
“There’s just so much love!”
And at that, I close my laptop, resolving to fight the good fight more tomorrow.