How We Keep on Teaching, Despite The Grief?

How-to-keep-teaching-when-things-get-hard

A few years back, a pre-service teacher told me that she had been up late the night before crying because a student she was connected to was being bounced around the foster care system. She believed he was slipping through the cracks and was fearful about his fate.  “How do you keep on teaching?” she asked me, in the face of the hardships that befall our students.

Part of teaching, I told her, is being willing to have your heart broken –  over and over.

Reach Them To Teach Them

A teacher with a broken heart is not such  a terrible thing. It means you are being effective. It means you are connecting with your students and caring about them enough to feel the pain that they are going through. If you don’t find a way to love them, it’s really hard to teach them.

Frankly, adolescents can be very hard to love. They often have trouble loving themselves and all that dissonance comes through in their argumentativeness, combativeness, withdrawal and indifference.

But they are the youngsters and I am the adult.  My job is to love them.

As adults, we “fall in love.” Love happens to us.  It often sneaks up on us when we are unaware that it is lurking nearby.  This just won’t work with students. We don’t have time to wait around for love to happen. We have to be proactive. We have to “step toward love.” It’s a matter of urgency for teachers.

Tough Students Need Love

Once you’ve been in the classroom for even a few years, you have a pretty good idea of who will be your high-maintenance students. They’re the ones who are going to be challenges and who you will need to spend the most time with. Some of them will be the students who make your life easiest when they are absent.

These are the students to find a way to love as soon as possible.

Why? Because if you can metaphorically step toward individual students and love them, then you can draw on that love when the student becomes exasperating.  We know many of them will be just that.  

The major developmental task during adolescence is for a child to individuate from her parents/guardians and form her own sense of self.  Sometimes they practice this individuating in opposition to other adults. Sometimes that adult is you and me.

How To Step Toward Love at School

When I meet my students at the beginning of the year, I intentionally look for something to love about them. It might be something superficial, like their dimples, their cute smile or a cowlick in their hair.  It might be the way they’ve decorated their binder with pictures of their family members – some are infants, some are young adults who, sadly, have “RIP” written under their photos.  

My love might start by noticing their shyness, their eagerness or the creative way they express their individuality without actually breaking the dress code (with spiked “rocker” bracelets and belts, for example). It might be the way they approach me right after class with a question – when really what they want is one-on-one time with me.

It Ain’t Easy

I have had some hall-of-fame difficult students. They have taxed every fiber of my patience and compassion. In my head, I have quit teaching thousands of times because of them.  As a 7th grader, Pedro (not his real name) was one of them.

When trying to love him, I did notice how carefully he cut his own hair, using his electric razor to get perfectly straight lines. And, he had a beautiful smile.  He loved to act – and act out.  Constantly, daily, incessantly.  But, from those small things I was able to appreciate, I built enough love for him that when I held him after class to talk about all the damage he did to my lesson and to his learning, I could still connect with him.  It was very, very difficult for me. And, probably for him, too.

When I am at my best, I remember that neither Pedro nor any other student comes to school determined to fail, or determined to be oppositional, or to deliberately disrupt everyone’s learning.  

I really believe each student wants to succeed. But, they get lost along the way.  So many young people come to us unable to “do school.” That is not their fault. The system has failed them.  Some  come with gaps in their learning. Some have not acquired academic English, others say things  like “I didn’t have a 5th grade teacher. We only had subs.”

Imagine the frustration of spending hours a day trying to work way above our Zone of Proximal Development. Or, the distraction caused by trauma and grief from deportations, incarcerations, sleep deprivation, food instability, and violence.  

When we look across the classroom and really try to see our students, we remember that they are just young people, without the tools of adulthood, trying to make their way in a confusing world.  It becomes a whole lot easier to love them.

The Best of Times

So what about Pedro?

I have my students for two years.  By the end of 8th grade, I was surprised when he asked me to helped him apply to a college prep magnet high school, for which he was certainly not qualified. I think he got in on his charm and his conviction that he could succeed – definitely not on his grades.  

Our after school time focused on revising his essays and practicing what he should say during his interview.  Since beginning high school, Pedro has risen to the occasion and has become a self-described “school boy.”  

He showed up after school one day recently.  He surprised me with his stature (yes, they often grow taller than us), with his bear hug greeting, and most of all, with what came out his mouth:  “You changed my life, Ms. Minkin,” “I couldn’t have done it without you, Ms. Minkin,” and “I came here specifically to thank you, Ms. Minkin.”

As teachers, we rarely understand the long-term impact of our work. Sometimes that alone makes it hard to keep on teaching. But we have to trust that we are making a difference.  We savor the moments when students like Pedro acknowledge our impact.

The day of his visit my heart ached all over again, but that time with joy.  Good teaching starts – and ends – with love.

***

What do you think?  How do teachers keep on teaching, in your experience? Share your thoughts below.

**Need some other ideas for staying the course?  Here’s a great article from Edutopia:  “Staying Positive During Trying Times” by a thoughtful teacher, Heather Wolpert-Gawron.

4 Comments

  • Aimee Ellicott

    Reply Reply December 19, 2016

    Thanks, Melissa, for describing how you find something about every student, however small or superficial, to like or love. A good lesson for all of us, whether we are teachers or not.

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply January 12, 2017

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I really appreciate it.

  • Noelle Hildebrand

    Reply Reply January 18, 2017

    Yes, I think the only way we can do it is to remember that most of the time, students don’t actually come back to thank us! I have a draft of an email I’ve been thinking about for about three years to send to my high school Spanish teacher. The fact that that student made the effort to come see you speaks volumes!
    I also found it much easier to “love” kindergartners and first graders than I do the students I teach now– 16- to 19-year-olds. I’m trying!

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply January 29, 2017

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you send your Spanish teacher that email! You made me laugh about 16-29 year-olds.

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