Dear John

The first day of school, Harry walked into class and I could see there was something special about him. He was clearly in the wrong math class and should have been placed in advanced Algebra 2. Within the first week of school, I contacted both his counselor and his mom and he was moved to Pre IB algebra 2. From then on, every fourth block he would walk into 910 instead of room 909 and I never saw him again.

But this story isn’t about Harry. It’s about the quiet boy who sat next to him, John.

When I had decided to become a teacher, I was rejected from my first choice Masters program. I also failed the Math PRAXIS twice and couldn’t teach at my first county of choice. I was devastated. That was my ticket into teaching and I was had no idea what to do next. Until I found out I didn’t need any of that if I wanted to teach in the city. So I thought I would stay there until I could pass my exams.

Immediately I was hooked. I could get these kids so excited about math and I felt like I was really making a difference. I thought anyone could make a difference in the suburbs, but look at me, I’m making a difference with kids who need me. Anyone could stand in front of the room and teach math to students who come from more. But I teach kids who come from nothing. I was doing “desaseva” as my mom called it, “saving the world” one child at a time. It felt amazing like I had found my calling in life.

Eventually for reasons I won’t go into now, I started to consider leaving the inter-city school system. I had passed my exams and was read for a change. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being selfish for leaving students who needed me for students who didn’t. But then I talked to my teacher friend who told me there are kids everywhere that need you. I didn’t believe her. I thought she just didn’t understand. That was until I decided to leave the city and join the suburbs. That was until I met John.

John, unlike Harry, was very quiet. But like Harry, was extremely bright and clearly could have succeeded in advanced Algebra 2. He shouldn’t have been placed in my class, he belonged in room 910 with Harry. We contacted his mom as well, but John stayed in my class.

Throughout the year John was my top student. Anything I taught he would immediately master and help the rest of his group. If I ever thought I forgot to teach something, John would remind me that I did because he’d know it. I would walk by him each class and give him a little feedback if anything but other than that, John didn’t need me. I was consistently met with the feeling that John could have been learning more in 910 than my room. John could have been learning with students like Harry than with students under his level like the ones in my room.

Later that year, John passed his Virginia Standards of Learning exam with a perfect 600. When I had the pleasure of telling him the news, his face read as obviously. I too had no doubt that of course he did and I had nothing to do with it. I thought whether he was in my classroom or not this would have been the score he rightfully deserved.

The school year ended and John was another student I told good bye! And have a great summer to, never thinking I’d see him again, but believing that no matter where he ended up and whichever teachers had the honor of teaching his brilliant mind, that he would be successful. I truly never believed I’d even hear his name again.

Until that summer when I ran into a family friend of John’s family who informed me that John had signed up for Precalculus to which l thought obviously! But apparently the county had accidently preemptively released student schedules and John’s mom had to make a “phone call” because I wasn’t his Precalculus teacher. I was taken a back. Why did it matter that I wasn’t John’s teacher again this year?

What I learned was that the first week of school when I suggested to John that he move from my class into Advanced Algebra 2, he went home that night and talked to his mom. John felt that for the first time he mattered, that he was seen, heard, and understood. Being the quiet successful student that he was, no one ever stopped to make sure he was included. The collaborastive environment of my class made John feel like he had a role and mattered not only to me, but other people as well. He had always been a successful math student, but in my class it was more than that. He never switched to the class that I thought he belonged in because plain and simple, he loved being in my class and loved his teachers.

I was moved to tears. Every time John earned an A in my class to when he earned that final 600, I never thought it was because of me. I never thought I mattered. I truly felt that anyone could have taught him this subject and he would succeed. But sometimes our role as teachers isn’t just about teaching, it’s about making kids feel like they matter. Sure, anyone could have taught John, but what he taught me was that most of the time, teaching isn’t about teaching. In John’s case, I made him feel like he existed. In other cases, I make students smile, be successful, know I’m there’s and know that I care. Teaching is not just about the education you receive, it’s about the life you believe your students deserve to lead.

And John, just like I almost never knew that I made a difference in your life and education, you may never know just how much of a difference you made in my life. But just know, you will always matter to me.

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The Grade Disappointment

Ah. The dreaded Logs and Exponentials test. The one test that each year without fail makes the lowest test average. Not just because the material is difficult, but for the first time students need to study hard and, unfortunately, most don’t.

Grading this test is always hard for me; failing grades back to back … to back. Sure, you can clearly see your top students excelling and see which students put in the time and effort to study. But for what feels like most of students, all you see is your own disappointment.

That afternoon after grading those tests, I came home completely distraught. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to pass back their tests the following day. What was I going to say? What was I going to do to help them bring up their grade? Did students who clearly didn’t study deserve a second chance? It consumed my every thought. It was more than disappointment, it was personal.

So, I sought out the advice of my fellow teachers and asked them how do you not take it personally when your students fail? I was looking for a magical potion to carry my worries away and every teacher I turned to gave me the same answer. I do. I couldn’t believe it.

Teachers spend an insurmountable amount of time and energy on each of their students to help them learn and succeed. I make myself available to my students each morning. On this test, I provided them with not one or two but three test reviews. I even told them exactly what was on the test, down to the very questions. And yet, only a handful of them went back to study. How could they do that to me?

How could one student write “please explain” on several questions when I could have explained at any point throughout the unit if she had just asked.

How could another student write “IDK” on nearly every question when I told him exactly which questions to study.

How could my class not be their number one priority?

And that’s what I failed to realize before. I spend at least 6 hours each day with my students at the center of my mind thinking of activities and resources to help them learn and succeed. But them? They spend very few hours thinking about my class outside of the 90 minutes every other day when they are actually in my classroom. They’re thinking about their other classes, video games, sports, friends, their lives. But, when they are the center of our world, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are not. And as a result, we end up with mixed emotions and meager explanations.

Maybe I didn’t explain this concept well enough. Let me talk to their old math teacher and find out how they did last year. Maybe there was something more I could have done.

The next day I was ready to give their tests back. I had a pep talk all planned out for them. I was going to give them encouragement that they could bring their grades up and I was ready to help them get there. I was nervous. What if they would all gang up on me and tell me I was an awful teacher? What if they would tell me that the test was unfair and I didn’t teach them something correctly? What if they were right?

Instead, their response was even more shocking.

While you all are working today, I’m going to hand back your tests.

“Oh no.” *dreadful looks*

Before I give them back to you, I want you all to know that this test is notoriously the hardest test of the year. This is the first time this class is difficult and you need to study harder than you did before.

*head nods all around*

However, it was also very obvious if you did not study at all for this test.

*accusatory glances are their friends*
*shrugs of acknowledgement from students who scored poorly*

But I want you to know that I am here for you and you can do test corrections as always.

*Mischievous looks at each other as if my test correction policy was brand new, even though it’s the same one I’ve had all year.*

I know you all can do this and this material is difficult, but I am here for you to help you succeed.

I couldn’t believe it! The students that didn’t do well knew they didn’t do what they needed to do. Even “IDK” and “please explain” who caused me so much grief humbly asked me about the test corrections policy and if there was anything else they could do.

All of the grief that this situation brought me was for nothing. And it made a lot of sense after the fact: these students are my whole world, and I am just a piece of their world. Their failures are my failures, but my disappointment isn’t necessarily theirs. And I have to be ok with that.

So did my spiel of encouragement prove to be effective? All I can say for now is that later in the week, I overheard everyone asking their friends if they studied for their first trigonometry quiz. I was not disappointed to hear many yes’s, and this time, grading their quizzes wasn’t so painful.