I recently came across this inspiring letter written by a new teacher and she gave me permission to share it here:
So, I’m a brand-new 7th grade English teacher. I work in a school where something like 80% of the kids live below the poverty line. Many of them have families who are barely making it. Many of them wear the same clothes to school multiple days in a row. For many of them, school lunch is the only meal they will eat that day. Many of their parents struggle with drugs, alcoholism, or are incarcerated.
And here I am, some 25-year-old white girl who saw Freedom Writers and wanted to make a difference. Want to know a secret? Some days, I feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
Yes, I do know some of what they’re going through, I guess – I grew up in a similar situation, at least financially. My single mom worked three jobs while going back to school, raising me, and supporting my great-grandma who has Alzheimer’s, but then she got cancer and we were on assistance for a while during my childhood. I had a grandmother who robbed my mom blind in the middle of all of this to pay off gambling debts. I’ve never met my dad and that’s admittedly always left a bit of a hole in my heart.
I know some fraction of what these kids go through, but every situation is different. I have no idea what it feels like, for instance, to come home to your mom’s boyfriend holding a gun to her head. (Some of my kids do. That’s tough to stomach.)
And the work environment itself is tough. Because of the demographics of our city, the taxes are very low, and this translates to things like no air conditioning in the schools (temps reached 102 in my classroom this August). I’m not really complaining, because I am just in LOVE with these kids. They are truly remarkable. But it’s still really, really hard.
The truth is, I sometimes feel completely snowed under and overwhelmed. Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve probably ever done, but I really honestly truly madly deeply feel like God has been taking care of my little introverted soul during these first three weeks of school.
It’s little things – every morning, hearing an encouraging song on the radio on my drive to school. When a kid comes to me for advice or just needs me to listen to them, and I’m blessed with just enough time to give them my ears for a few moments and it really seems to lighten a bit of their load.
I’ve worked with kids for a while, in various capacities, before teaching full-time. But there is nothing quite like being in the middle of giving a naughty class a little talking-to about respect, and getting to the part where you tell them you’re disappointed because their behavior is telling you they don’t really care what you have to say (when they’re talking while you’re talking, tapping on desks, and otherwise not paying attention), and being completely cut off mid-sentence by the ten rowdiest, most ornery, most disruptive kids in the class dramatically and loudly objecting that you are, in actuality, their favorite teacher and that they can’t WAIT to come to your class every day. That they feel like it’s home. I almost cried in the middle of my serious talk!
Here’s God’s honest truth: every day I internally question whether I truly have what it takes to be a teacher. And every day, there they are: the 77 silly, sweet, remarkable reasons I stay.
I say these things because I’ve been through just enough suffering in my short life to finally be touching the very outermost tip of a realization: that no matter what you’re going through – and I mean no matter WHAT – there is always, always, always hope. That and Jesus help me get through my every day, and I hope it helps you, too.
Love from the Midwest,
And now I get to add my 2 cents: first think of the teachers you had, like Cattie, who cared about you and did their best to teach you something useful. Maybe not just the subject matter, but lessons like respect and responsibility. What if we could fill our schools with people like that??? Can you think of any simpler way to instantly and dramatically improve our world???
Yes, I know, the home environment and surrounding cultural attitudes toward intelligence, success, effort, and self love and value are the real pivot points that determine student success or failure, but culture runs deep and is notoriously difficult to change. Hiring high-quality teachers could be much more simple and immediate than that.
Studies often show that throwing more money at education does little to increase the quality of education, but no one can deny that raising teacher salaries – and thus raising the social prestige of the position – is an unavoidable step if we hope to attract more of the best teachers.
Yes, some of the greatest teachers on the planet do it for less and, like Cattie, find other rewards in their work, but others turn elsewhere and the entire world suffers for their absence in the classroom. It’s not just about test scores, it’s about attitudes and values and perceptions – the things that shape your entire life, not just your career.
It’s about self respect and enthusiasm for learning and living; it’s about civility and dreams and hope and knowing that somebody out there loves you, that someone is unquestioningly on your side and believes in your potential to become even better than you have yet been, and expects you to succeed.
I know about professionals turning away from education as a career because that group includes me. I taught English off and on for fifteen years as a TA, lecturer and adjunct at the university level. I wasn’t perfect, but I loved (most of) my students and usually within a week or two, I would watch the lights flicker on in their eyes as they came to love learning, thinking and writing more (or at least hate it less). My favorite moments were leaving the classroom and remembering how much the students had laughed as they learned.
But the job included an obligatory vow of poverty; and last summer, I swore it off for good. I’m now exploring new ways of getting my fix and loving and inspiring people and making the world a better place, and hoping it will reward me with a more livable income.
If YOU want to make a positive difference in this world, then contact your local politicians and ask them to raise teacher salaries. Yes, this may mean raising your property taxes, but the increase will be miniscule and maybe, eventually, they will result in one more superb, talented, loving individual choosing teaching as their career; and maybe, eventually, that individual will change hundreds or thousands of students’ lives for the better; and maybe, eventually, our nation and world will turn out better than whatever it’s heading toward right now.
Teachers’ power to shape our world is second only to that of parents. They are more valuable than athletes and entertainers. They’re more important than lawyers and even doctors. But until we pay them a respectable wage, they won’t feel like it and schools won’t attract the best of the best, or at least not nearly enough of them. Kids won’t get the message that education and effort matters, either, and that’s a recipe for failure and mediocrity already playing itself out in too many school districts right now and for the foreseeable future unless we alter our current course.
Now again remember those teachers who made a positive difference in your life. Thank them the best way you can, by paying it forward. Help their dreams of a better future come true by supporting teachers today. Share this message with your friends and when the opportunity appears, speak up for teachers.