Friday, March 26, 2010

Why I Do It

Some people ask me when I tell them all that frustrates me about the bureaucracy of being a teacher, "Why do you do it then?  Why not just quit?"

One, I'm not a quitter.  In high school, I produced, directed and wrote a play about teenage domestic violence.  I cast it with other members of the honors drama class and a week before we were supposed to hit the stage the "Big Man on Campus" who was cast as the abuser got cold feet at playing such a role and quit.  So, I found someone else to play the role.  The day before we were set to take the stage, when we were doing final rehearsals, the replacement quit for he too was lily-livered.  I didn't give up though and found someone to step up and play the part and he did it well.  I think tenacity is in my DNA.

Two,  let me tell you the story of Gem*.

In my second year of teaching I was handing back some papers while the students were supposed to be working independently.  I came up to Gem and another girl talking when they weren't supposed to and chided them for it.  They said something about talking about Gem not getting along with her stepmom.  I told them I know what it's like to not always get along with a stepparent. As I began to walk away I hear, "Yeah, but does yours hurt you?"

My alarm bells went off and I began to worry about what they meant by that.  Hurt her how?  Emotionally?  Physically?  So instead of wondering, I put a note for Gem to come see me before school on her latest assignment and handed it back to her the next day.  She arrived like the good former honors student that she was and I pulled her aside and asked her about what I heard and how it was meant.  My heart sank as she let the truth roll out and I saw the mark she reveled hidden behind her clothing. 

I wrapped my arms around her in a hug she seemed to sink into and told her what I had to do legally and suggested she tell her father what had been going on behind his back.  She agreed and she left after I promised to wait to report it.  She came in later that day, crying, and begging me not to report it.  I told her that I could never live with myself if I didn't report it and something happened to her; explaining that it wasn't just a legal issue for me, but a moral one as well.

I reported it and it became a bit of a mess because they knew who had reported it.  Her stepmother threatened to get me fired (maybe she succeeded because I was let go due to budget cuts at the end of that year), and things got worse between Gem and her family.  Nothing was really done besides a visit from CPS and the only thing I could do to help her after that was listen to her and give her what advice I thought wouldn't cross any lines for the remainder of the year (it might be a good idea to spend the summer with her grandmother, take your brother up on his offer of a couch, etc).

Now, you might be wondering, "Wouldn't that be a reason to give up?  To quit?"  For some people, yes.  Some have left teaching for exactly that reason.

For me, though, because of this "incident" I have a special memento I pull out whenever I question if this is what I'm supposed to be doing, when I question my calling.  A letter from Gem that she gave me the last day of school that year, when I was saying good bye to the students and school.

I'm not going to share all of the letter because it was meant for me and it means so much to me, but I'll share a part so the few readers out there can understand why I keep doing what I do even when many think I should quit.  This is why I do what I do:

"Dear Miss B

...You don't know how grateful and appreciative I am for what you have done for me.  Thank you so much for caring enough about me and feeling that it was your duty to step in and see if I was have made me realize that what has happened to me is not ok and you were definitely an adult that could count on...that is something I'm not used to.  You have made me find the strength to stand up for myself..."

* Name changed because I'm not stupid


  1. The tenacity sure does help in achieving those breakthrough successes!

  2. When people ask me if I like what I do, I answer, “It depends on which day you ask me.” Some days I drag the weight of the system’s flaws with me as I leave the school, and it wakes me up with worry in the middle of the night. Other days, I walk away wondering how I could be so lucky as to be paid to work with such wonderful kids. It’s not just the save-the-child from danger interactions, or the thank you notes either--it might be the light of comprehension you see flicker into the students eyes when you least expect it, or the sincere satisfaction they have at that experience.

    A couple of weeks ago, I had a student tell me that she intended to fail my class to “get even with her mother”. I didn’t pressure her that day, or the one after that, but little by little I coaxed her to complete (and turn in) the major projects. On the last day of class, this student had earned a C grade. As she walked away from me with her grade printout in hand, she chuckled and commented that I had “made her fail at being a failure” – I’ll take that, (and celebrate it!) . . . BTW, the student also proudly requested that I call her mom to tell her that her daughter had passed my class . . . Yes, it is the students, for sure, that keep us here!! Thank you, kids!

  3. I remember you talking about that before. I completely agree that its definitely a reason to stay. If all the ones who care leave, then who is left?

  4. The kids can drive us crazy and even hurt us, but they also fuel us.