December 17, 2016

You Make a Difference!

As a teacher, I don't always know the impact that I have had on my students. True, I've heard the occasional heart-warming story about an especially remarkable teacher who inspired her students to go on to do remarkable things. I sometimes receive kind, thoughtful notes of thanks from the parents of my students. And once in awhile, I even have former students come back to visit me, just to give me a hug or to say "Hello." These are all wonderful experiences, and they remind me why I became a teacher in the first place. It is not every day, however, that a former student seeks me out to tell me that is she considering becoming a first grade teacher because of the experience she had in my class ten years ago. What this beautiful, poised, articulate, sixteen year-old doesn't know, though, is that the year that she was in my first grade class was one of the most difficult years I've ever had, both personally and professionally.  Most mornings, her sweet face was what motivated me to get out of bed and go to work. I'm not usually one to share personal details on my blog, but this story bears telling.

Ten years ago, I was teaching first grade for the first time after having taught Kindergarten and Pre-K for five years. I had a new administrator, our school's population was booming, and I was teaching in a former teachers' lounge (it was tiny). I tried to maximize the space I had, but we were still cramped, and I felt claustrophobic. The silver lining was that I had a wonderful class. I was especially excited to have a little girl, named Faith, in my class. Her mother worked with my close friend, so I had had the opportunity to meet Faith on several occasions, and she was an absolute joy: she had a sweet, gap-toothed smile that lit up the room, and she was incredibly enthusiastic about school. In short, she was the student that we all dream about!

In October, I found out that I was pregnant with our first baby. I was equal parts thrilled and terrified, and I couldn't wait to share the news with my students (in retrospect, I should have). I read them the book, Our Teacher's Having a Baby, by Eve Bunting, and the students' reactions were priceless. The week before my husband and I prepared to travel to Western Pennsylvania to visit his family for Thanksgiving, I started to sense that something wasn't right with the pregnancy. I called my midwife in a panic, and she assured me that everything was fine and that it was safe to travel. On Thanksgiving night, though, I knew for certain that I was starting to lose the baby. By the time we arrived at the emergency room in Maryland, it was too late. I lost the pregnancy at nine weeks, and I stayed home for a week to process what had happened and to physically recover.  An understanding colleague was kind enough to find an age-appropriate way to explain to my students what had happened, but their innocent questions still threw me for a serious loop when I returned to work.

I only worked for a week and a half before it was time for Winter Break, and the week we returned to school, I had a run-in with my administrator. Between leftover pregnancy hormones and the discomfort that I felt professionally, I really started to struggle. Looking back, I'm ashamed of my behavior that year: I was short-tempered, I snapped at my students, and I didn't have any patience for poor performance and bad behavior. My students and their families deserved more from me.

Through it all, though, it was Faith's smile that I saw in the morning as I lay in bed, trying to muster up the motivation and the enthusiasm to face my twenty-two little first graders. I just couldn't bear to let her down. I made it through the remainder of the school year, and in March, I found out I was expecting sweet Princess A. I waited to read Our Teacher's Having a Baby until my second trimester this time, and my students were thrilled to find out that I was expecting again.

At the end of the school year, I had the opportunity to transfer to another school in my county, and I taught third grade there for three years. The year that I was expecting Deedle, I had Faith in my third grade class. What an unexpected treat to be able to be her teacher twice!

Now, Faith is sixteen years old, and she is debating a career in either teaching (YAY!!) or nursing. She reached out to me on Facebook, and she asked me for some advice and how I decided to become a teacher. Now, that's a tough one! Here's the response I sent her:

Hi Faith! It's so great to hear from you! I love being able to keep up with you via Facebook...looks like things are going really well for you! Hard to believe you're starting to look at colleges..sure makes me feel old! Trying to decide between nursing and teaching is a tough choice; both are challenging, yet incredibly rewarding careers. I always knew that I wanted to work with children (my mom ran an in-home daycare when I was growing up, so I was always helping her), but it wasn't until after I spent a year teaching music and preschool (yep, both!) at a private school right after college that I knew I wanted to make teaching my career. I had to go back to school to get a second degree and my certification, but it was well worth the hard work. I've been teaching now for fifteen years, and there are so many things I love about my job. First, it has never felt like a job; every day is different, and every day, something new, fun, or exciting happens. I genuinely look forward to going to work every day. But more than that, I love my job because there is nothing that compares to the moment that a child figures out the "reading code" and reads independently and with confidence for the first time; I still get goosebumps when it happens! I won't lie to you: teaching is time-consuming, heart-wrenching, and exhausting, but in my opinion, it is the best career out there. Regardless of what path you choose, Faith, I know without a doubt that you will be successful; you were, and always will be a remarkable young woman, and I know that you will go far! Please let me know if I can do anything to help as you work toward making a decision; you're always welcome to come spend some time in my classroom if you'd like to get a better feel for the profession. Best of luck!

She decided that she would like to come spend some time in my classroom, so yesterday, she spent the afternoon with my hopped-up, Christmas-crazy little first graders. She was amazing with them, and they all adored her. They can't wait for her to come back!

While she was in my classroom, we had the opportunity to chat, and I was completely floored when she shared some of the memories she has of the year I taught her in first grade. While I thought our classroom was cramped and claustrophobic, she happily recalled sitting in our cubby area, playing game after game of "Sparkle." She didn't mention remembering my first pregnancy or how short-tempered I was that year, but she did mention how excited she was when I told them that I was pregnant with Princess A. And the best part? When she looks back on all of her school experiences, she considers first grade to be her best one. She is leaning toward going to school to work toward a degree in elementary education, and ideally, she would like to teach first grade.

So, see? We never really know the impact that we have on our students.

As it turns out, I needed Faith that year as much as she needed me. And for that, I will always be grateful to her.