This week’s Ask Sarah column addresses a question Teacher2Teacher has been posing to a lot of teachers recently. They’re wondering #WhyITeach. But rather than answering them directly, I decided to write a letter to one of my former students.
I hope during this week of Teacher Appreciation, you remember how acknowledgement is a door that swings both ways and every time you’ve opened one for a student, he or she has opened one for you.
In many ways we were both freshmen that year. You, in your first year of high school. Me, in my first year at Johnston. Both of us determined in our own ways. You, to exceed your own expectations. Me, to create a classroom everyone wanted to be in, the kind I’d envisioned in my mind’s eye. You sat in the back, closest to the phone and my desk, perched with a perceptiveness well beyond your years. I stood in the front a lot that fall, often confusing giving directions with teaching.
In ways that are human, but unfair, I relied on you a lot. If you smiled, then I assumed the lesson was working. If you did your homework, I assumed I’d crafted the assignment well. If you raised your hand, I believed everyone was learning as much as you were. So I carried on, nurturing an incongruent sense of the “magic” I was creating and the impotent realities I was ignoring.
As it is with all truths we bury, these would eventually bubble to the indisputable surface. I remember it all in slow motion. I’d assigned the Brent Staples essay, “Just Walk On By.” Our “discussion” started with my questions. You and another student thoughtfully answered them all and I felt good, sliding into my comfortable illusions that were becoming careless habits.
Then for some reason, when I asked the next question and you raised your hand, I didn’t call on you. Instead, I wanted to hear the voices of other students. But there weren’t any. Just the screaming silence of a classroom and the thundering collapse of my illusion. In the rubble I quickly read the reality. I was happily playing school with a few of my students; meanwhile, convincing myself I was teaching them all.
I asked, “How many of you read the homework?” 27 pairs of eyes focused on desktops instead of me. Then I looked at you and realized your 14-year-old self had somehow been protecting me from what you’d known all along: I wasn’t reaching them.
I stopped the lesson. I wanted to get angry and chastise, but I knew it was more my fault than theirs. I wanted to ask why, but I was too fragile with disillusionment. Instead, I asked everyone to get out their essays. I gave them time to read. I asked them to raise their hands when they got stuck. I learned about the words that confused them. I knelt beside Jake and Alyssa and urged them along. I read some parts out loud when they couldn’t feel the cadence of the language. I found the question I still use nearly every day, “What do you know for sure?” and the direction that follows, “That’s where we’ll start.”
Rachel, I teach for all the students like you and for all of the ones you helped me finally see. I teach because I choose gritty reality over magic. I teach because I choose silence over fabricated discussions. I teach because you showed me one student never represents a whole class. I teach because I must.
I know you saw my illusion crumble into some combination of embarrassment and humility that day. Perhaps what you didn’t see, but what you must know, is that moment gave way to a lifetime of building something real.