River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 31 2011

It Takes A Teacher

Defeated. Homesick. Tired.

As I retreated back home in June, I was haunted by nightmares from my first year of teaching. Following a full year of creating curriculum, counseling and coaching children, and submitting to paperwork, I was, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer: “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I needed a break. Taking a step back, I asked myself what I could do differently (if anything) to unlock the potential of my 130 students. I’m just one teacher. Am I really important in the grand scheme of life?

My initial answer was admittedly defeatist: I believed I couldn’t do much to combat the circumstances of my students’ childhoods nor the challenges they confront daily. I poured over work my aunt had saved for me in “memory boxes” from grade school trying to remember what I was like as a 14-year-old. At first, I used old reading logs to confirm my theory that my students needed to read 30+ minutes per night to have a chance- after all, that’s what I did.

Suddenly, I came across a document that changed my perspective: my first standardized test. I had scored at the 50th percentile in both reading/writing and math on a first grade assessment- I was floored. I then gave my middle school work a more critical look. My grammar and mechanics were certainly not indicative of a college-bound kid.

Q: How did I go from the 50th percentile in first grade to the 99th percentile by high school graduation?

A: It took a teacher.

It took a teacher to recognize the potential in a rebelliously eager first grader. It took a teacher to care enough to maintain high expectations when I refused to write in cursive. It took a teacher to support me when I beat up the 5th grade bully for calling my brother a racial slur. It took a teacher to put me on an advanced track in the face of statistics that still predict the opposite path for a black boy. It took a teacher to help cultivate a young gentleman when no male role model was in the home. It took a teacher to reinforce my mother’s belief that I could be anything I wanted to be, even when I had no clue of what I wanted to be.

Teaching is important because it takes a teacher to see the potential in a struggling student, to push a good student to become a great student, and to show genuine interest in each student. It took those same teachers to motivate me to work towards greater support for the teaching profession when they told me I shouldn’t teach because I deserved better; however, it’s like “Lies My Teacher Told Me” because THEY are the ones who deserve better. It takes a teacher to do “whatever it takes” to ensure student success.

To my teachers, I say “thank you.” You are important to me, just as I aim to be important to my students. Let us all recognize the limitless significance of our nation’s teachers and ensure our words help, rather than harm our common mission to develop the ability of America’s most vulnerable generation- our children.

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Middle School

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