How the system broke my heart (and how my students mended it)

I originally wrote this story back in April in an old notebook on a Sunday afternoon, amid tears. I meant to rewrite it here in the space of my blog, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure why. I simply hesitated and put it off, positive I would post as soon as I was. Subsequently, I experienced a serious bout of writer’s block because I couldn’t possibly write on another topic until I got this story out. I am posting it now because I hope it can help others in similar situations, and selfishly, I know writing it will help put it behind me for good. This experience has also profoundly shaped my perspective and my heart. In simple terms, it has made me stronger.

So, it goes…

A sign is posted to the left of my doorknob which reads,“You enter this classroom as a student who is respected, empowered, challenged, and loved.” Originally created by my teaching soul sister, I adopted it as my own because it spoke to my philosophy of education. It does not feel natural to teach without this extension of love.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 13, the first day back from a restful spring break, my principal strolls in my classroom. She stops just past the doorway, picks up a small piece of trash and meets me halfway while asking whether this is my plan period. I have just finished three hours of teaching, reenergized to be back with my students, and reply yes with a smile. I meet her eyes and she says, “I just wanted to let you know your contract is not being renewed.”

Instinctually, my hand went straight to my heart, my spine elongated, shoulders back. Fifteen minutes later on the phone to my husband—amid sobs—I would explain it felt like I was punched in the stomach, literally punched, my breathing turned rapid.

I only processed pieces of that ten minute long conversation with my former principal. Snippets rang in my ears. Something about budget cuts, an apology, personal days, and the affirmation that I am a great teacher. I tried hard not to cry in front of an administrator who had yet to show any emotion with me. Damn, did I try. But, they came. In a professional tone, I apologized for the tears. In an attempt to be reassuring, I think, she said she would be emotional too. She then encouraged me to reapply for my position if the budget was approved and stated she would also be happy to write a letter of recommendation. And then with that, she left. Headed down the hallway to share the same news with another probationary, first year in the district, teacher.

Later that week, in meetings with the department chair and union reps, I would learn the decision was made unilaterally. My evaluations and peers agreed I was doing great work with the students and they loved me. It didn’t change the fact that my teaching spirit was crushed. Sadly, I have learned, this happens all the time to teachers new to a district. A fellow English teacher colleague of mine said his contract had been non-renewed five times, five times. He is my age—about 30.

The rest of that day was the hardest. I still had three more classes to teach and I had lost all my appetite for lunch. I made a cup of tea and found the name, “Benners” in my call log. I shared the news with him, and he shared the shock. When my husband got home that afternoon to find me painting with our daughter, he gave me my first embrace of the day. Because despite my need to be comforted, I chose not to tell anyone at my school that day. I simply sat in my classroom, lights off, door closed. I wrote, meditated, prayed, read blog posts from other teachers with similar experiences, and cried some more.

Eventually, I reapplied make-up, put on a smile, and greeted my students determined to be the best, damn teacher I could be, just as I had vowed when I began teaching seven years ago. I knew in my soul that it wasn’t about my principal’s power or budget cuts, it was about them—my students. And what matters is that despite everything else, they are the ones who make me feel respected, empowered, challenged…and loved.

Someone very close to me who understands my love for teaching, upon hearing the news, prayed I would receive kisses from God. I learned that later when, during a phone conversation, I shared just how intensely my students had been showering me with gifts of kindness and admiration the rest of that week. They did not know I was undergoing such a difficult trial in my career in public education, but perhaps they felt it. I was and am grateful for all of the loving reminders I received that ultimately mended a teaching heart, broken by the system.

Now that over two months have passed, I feel lighter. I enter a new chapter, carrying forth the stories of my students, and nothing more.

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IMG_2457 (The first four pictures were all gifts from students. This last photo is taken of me and the school mascot. The students and staff voted me as staffer-of-the-month in May. I ended the school year feeling very appreciated by my students and colleagues.)

Questions Kids Ask

I was a curious [read: annoyingly inquisitive] kid growing up.

In the 4th grade, I asked the teacher–in the middle of a lesson–a question that I had considered while home sick the day before. I explained that as I was lying on the couch, I noticed my mom had a can of diet coke sitting on the coffee table. I stared at the words on the can and wondered: Why do we pronounce the “e” in the word, “diet” because, after all, the “i” is a long sound, so wouldn’t the “e” be silent?

Our burly, former-husker-football-player teacher, Mr. F, looked at me over his mustache and with a chuckle said, “Tell your parents to give you something to do when you are sick…”

Another time I read an old, family copy of The Swiss Family Robinson and sat beneath the veil of conversation between adults. Questions kept swelling in my mind until they finally burst. Perhaps the book was beyond my level. Perhaps I should have mulled the question over before posing it to others. Nonetheless, I remember the look. The look on the faces of the adults that they were either stumped on how to answer or tired of answering too many questions.

Admittedly, I know that look now as a teacher.

I end my day with a squirrely group of 9th graders. Whenever I introduce something new or give directions, their arms race to the ceiling as if it were a 50 meter dash. Sometimes the questions energize my teaching, and other times, they make me hope for the bell. I am sure during those exhausting rounds of questioning, I give them glances that show I am either stumped or tired of giving out answers (sometimes to the same question if they were not being attentive listeners). Since I display every emotion openly on my face, I am not entirely sure how to avoid such an expression in the classroom. Despite that, I try to honor most questions posed in my classroom…even if it is the last class on a Friday afternoon.

As a parent, though, it is easy to avoid that type of facial expression; at the age of three, her questions are becoming even more fun, and her curiousity about the world is growing (maybe when she is older and her questions change, I will not feel the same way). Below are a few questions she has asked just within the last week:

  • Mama, where do I come from?
  • What is God?
  • What does my name spell backwards?
  • Who are “they”? (She asked this after my husband said, “You know, Linnea, they say that an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

So, as both a teacher and a parent, I hope I can answer questions with as much thought and creativity with which they were asked. And, hopefully, the questions will keep coming.

The Cycle of Gratitude

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Linnea and her puppy for whom she is always grateful (and says so during our nightly ritual)

I ended each of my three classes with a story: Every night, my husband, daughter, and I take turns sharing gratitude before dinner. Linnea, my two year old, always begins and will remind us if we forget to hold hands in the first place.

“Thank you, God, for”… [insert rambling response here]. She is grateful for everything from our neighbors’ dogs to her imaginary friends, Faddy and Dotty. In the rare event she gives a one word response, I begin prepping her plate for seconds because it is a clear indicator she is starving. Regardless of what each of us share–from a cozy home to thoughtful neighbors to family, near and far–it sets a positive perspective for us to end our day.

I explained to my students that this nightly ritual got me thinking about them. Why not start a similar routine in the classroom? I scanned the room, looking into the eyes that met my own and explained that I am grateful for each of them; I am just afraid I do not always show it. “Perhaps it is cheesy”, I mentioned, “But it means a lot to me and I hope it will to you too.” My story and comments met silence and I was beginning to second guess myself.

On the wall next to the door was the phrase “Thank You” written in a blue sharpie on a white, chart-paper, post-it. I prepared to share a few observations I had jotted down and stuck them to the paper. I realized it was difficult for me to read what I had wrote. Would they think I had favorites? What if they made fun of the kids I named? Would this even catch on?

As the class decided how to react, I was thinking about the other ways in which I had aimed to practice gratitude in the classroom: The letters written by students during the Thanksgiving season that I mailed to a person of his of her choice. One went to a prison, several to Mexico, and many to their very own homes. I received two in the mail and keep them under my keyboard at school. Other instructional choices are minor, but seem to have a positive impact on the culture of the classroom. How can I can continue to incorporate more gratitude so that we all feel a little more inspired. A little more motivated (especially during this difficult time in the school year). And a lot more loved.

The silence in the class dissipated, students eagerly walked to the paper and stuck their post-it notes to the wall. I could have dismissed class that day pointing out the eraser that flew across the room or the distracting chatter during our writers workshop. Instead I shared my gratitude for Maria’s laughter, Jovanny’s work ethic, and Marisol’s brilliantly written introduction, and chose to focus my attention on the positive. I stood at the door and matched their smiles with my own.

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I went back into my classroom from the hallway, turned off all the lights except one, and walked to my desk. A lone, post-it note stuck to my computer screen caught my attention and caused a slight flutter in my stomach. The note ended with, “I don’t think we have had a teacher like you”, and in her authentic voice, I knew the exercise was worthwhile. With that one sticky note, my student did more for me than any observation or evaluation ever could: it restored my faith. I need to remember that in encouraging and uplifting my students, I can help them find their own way. More listening, less talking.

Here’s to hoping the cycle continues.