Did you get a chance to read my Teaching is a Grind post? In it, I shared the ugly truth that a career in education ain’t all sunshine and candycorn.
The bit clearly resonated with readers, racking up more comments — both here and on the Center for Teaching Quality site — than any post I’ve written in a long, long time. Most commenters were grateful that I was willing to express feelings that most educators rarely share in public forums.
No commenter has left me thinking more than Sylvia Umstead, who wrote:
You seem so unhappy. Why didn’t you leave years ago? What’s keeping you in this profession?
My initial reaction to Sylvia’s post was heartbreaking. “Who knows?!” I thought. Working in a state that is systematically gutting public education one bad policy at a time REALLY DOES make it difficult to be happy on a day-to-day basis — and as a guy who has worked to build a consulting career beyond the classroom, leaving honestly would be easier than staying.
The answer to Sylvia’s question, though, rolled through my classroom door at 7:45 AM the next morning in the form of a boy that I’ll call Jake*.
Jake comes from a tough neighborhood where simply making ends meet often takes priority over success in school for most parents and students. At the beginning of the school year, he brought a fat attitude and a thousand behavior problems to every class period. He was defiant. He was disrespectful to everyone. He slept through classes, mouthed off to substitute teachers, and argued with anyone willing to listen.
What he didn’t realize, though, is that he’d been assigned to a team with three caring male teachers who weren’t going to let him off the hook that easily. Together, we tag-teamed Jake — calling him out when he was inappropriate, coaching him up in the hallway when he needed some redirection, and celebrating every small success that he had while in our rooms.
We bought him supplies when he needed them. We showed up at the community center near his home for awards ceremonies where he was being recognized. We turned him into a mentor for another boy living in his neighborhood who needed some help. We joked with him and made him laugh and gave him hugs when he needed them.
I think we caught him by surprise — and when we finally convinced him that we genuinely cared about him, he became a different kid.
He pays attention and participates in every class now. His homework is always finished. He comes to school smiling — including for all SIX of the Saturday makeup days that we had this year due to school cancellations. He reaches out to us every morning — coming to find us just to touch base. Sometimes he asks us for help with homework. Sometimes he wants to make playful bets with us on upcoming sporting events. Sometimes he just sits next to us, saying nothing but listening to everything. It’s almost like he wants to be SURE that we are still there for him and happy to see him.
Jake is why I remain in the classroom.
He’s a physical reminder that despite the crap coming out of our state’s legislature, teaching remains one of the few professions where you can make a real difference in someone else’s life. Had we written him off as a kid who was beyond help — something society is all-too-ready to do for kids like Jake AND something that would have been REALLY easy if you’d seen him in the first few weeks of the school year — who knows what he would have become.
Instead, by investing in him — by constantly reminding him that we care about who he is and have high hopes for who he can be — we’ve made school a safe place and success as a learner something that Jake can embrace and believe in. That investment will pay off for him. It might even change his life’s trajectory and give him a better chance at breaking out of the cycle of poverty that brings so many of today’s students down.
Jake is a huge win. He’s the reason that I keep on grinding.
*Name changed to protect Jake’s identity.
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