Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/6N4oqa
It’s easy to become deluded.
When I think back on the time that I spent in the classroom, I can see that now. Back then, I didn’t know what it meant to be playing school. It never occurred to me that some of the best writers I knew did this well while many of those who appeared to be struggling actually weren’t. It all had to do with what I was paying attention to and why. Back then, I had much to learn about confirmation bias.
This was what first came to mind last week, when I was asked to share a handful of inspirational stories for teachers at an annual luncheon.
When I taught writing in a classroom, I learned how to create interesting units and performance based assessments. I was passionate about differentiated instruction. I wanted to inspire the kids that I taught. They would all become writers by year’s end, and many did.
Or so I thought.
Many inspirational stories for teachers are born of regret. This is our reality and our jagged silver lining: good teachers become great when they’re able to tap the wisdom buried deep beneath the wreckage of things gone wrong.
It’s easy to delude ourselves into believing that the writers who play by the rules are succeeding. They show up, they complete their assignments flawlessly, and they earn high grades. They raise their hands in class. They edit. Carefully.
These are the kids who make the honor roll. They go on to become members of the National Honor Society. They write inspired essays that win them college scholarships. They make us proud.
It’s all a bit of a masquerade though, and if we aren’t sensitive to this, we begin to believe that those ornate masks are truly the face of things. After a few years, I began realize that maybe what was happening after the ball offered a better glimpse at reality.
For instance: if some of those successful students weren’t inspired to write outside of my classroom, could I really call them writers? And if those who were reluctant to write in class spent their evening hours and weekends composing music for their garage bands, submitting pieces to zines, and making animated shorts for YouTube, was it fair to call them reluctant?
I began investigating a bit more and designing performance tasks in ways that inspired my students to bring their outside passions into the classroom. Several colleagues of mine did the same. We spoke with writers about their interests, we celebrated talents that would have gone unnoticed otherwise, and we gained much from the contributions that all of them made.
Particularly those we labeled reluctant and those that the system classified learning disabled or emotionally disturbed.
These are the most inspirational stories for teachers that I continue to tell today, whenever I visit schools, coach writers and mentors at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, and speak with parents who worry that their children will go unnoticed.
I’ve been the teacher who does not see her students, and I’ll bet you’ve been that teacher too. We all fail. Many inspirational stories for teachers are born of regret. This is our reality and our jagged silver lining: good teachers become great when they’re able to tap the wisdom buried deep beneath the wreckage of things gone wrong.
Your most painful stories are the ones you should revisit most often.
This is one I’ve never told.
It’s continues to wake me up at night, typically when I’m trying to connect with a particularly challenging student.
I’ve come to accept it for what it is: a timely reminder.
How My Greatest Failure Transformed My Teaching
I don’t talk about Dane often, but when I do, my face still flushes. I still carry a lot of shame.
Dane was a student in my home base and my English class for several years. When I first met him, he was this sweet kid with gentle eyes and a head full of dreadlocks. Kids looked up to him. Teachers did too. He was quiet, humble, and wiser than his years, it seemed.
How little we knew about Dane, his siblings, or his mom, Susan Still.
He began changing dramatically in eighth grade. Many mornings found me marking him absent in home base. If he arrived, it was late. When he was in class, he often slept. Assignments went undone. There was a fist fight. He began mouthing off to friends and teachers who loved him.
We pulled him into hallway corners, placed hands on his shoulders, looked into those eyes.
“What is going on with you?” we asked him a thousand times. He would shrug and make promises he wasn’t able to keep.
The boy we knew was gone.
Something was wrong, and every teacher on my team knew it. We discussed him almost daily for months. We invited mom in to talk. She worried beside us and pushed gentle questions across the table, where Dane sat rigid and resistant, behind the mask he pulled down over those beautiful eyes.
He disappeared at the end of that school year, on the day of our eighth grade field trip. We took the entire class to an amusement park. We were ushered onto buses and made to leave early. Upon arrival at the school we were held on those buses until our Superintendent, who had been working with law enforcement, gave us the all-clear. We knew Dane wasn’t safe that day, but it wasn’t until years later that many of us learned why.
I never saw him again, until I got the call.
It was late afternoon, and I had just walked through the door after a full day of learning with teachers. I wasn’t in the classroom anymore, but the amount of papers I carried home each evening was no less, and I remember struggling for my phone as I juggled my bag.
“Turn on the television,” a former colleague ordered. “Hurry. Dane is on Oprah.”
“Oprah?” I asked, bewildered. “Who is on Oprah?”
“Dane. Dane Still is.”
I hung up the phone, flipped on the television, and sunk to the floor. An hour later, every question I ever had about Dane was answered, and to this day, I’ve never known deeper regret.
Here’s the thing: I’m not certain that any of us could have ever been the heroes of Dane’s story. He’s been a hero in mine though, and many of my students have benefited from what he taught me.
My husband has walked beside me as I’ve taught for over two decades now. He’s always teased me for loving the tough kids most, and I do. They’ve prank-called my house, keyed my car, slashed my tires, and one even jumped out of my classroom window (it was on the first floor, thankfully).
This is how they get my attention. It’s attention that my husband knows I will happily give. Sometimes, years later, they’ll come back to thank me. The tough kid in me once did this too.
I try to love all of the students I work with of course, but when I meet one who seems reluctant, who gets mouthy, who skips out, who goes cold in the face of any concern that I have for his or her happiness, I try to remember what Dane taught me: never judge human beings by the masks they wear, and this has turned into one of my favorite inspirational stories for teachers.
If you’re in this for the long haul, you will have your fair share of very dark days in the classroom. Things will fall apart. People will break. You will have regrets. Know that these regrets are your teachers. Don’t cast them away or recoil in shame. Invite them in. Talk with them a while. They will soften you. They will make you better than any teacher who prides herself on perfection. They will make you better than the teacher you thought you would be when perfection was your goal.
Pay attention to the situations and the kids who leave you feeling most defeated.
Dig the wisdom out from beneath the wreckage.
Let it change you.
This is what it means to be a learner, and this is how the best teachers define themselves.
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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.