October 9, 2010

Ask not what this country can do for you...

My ever growing  class library
A few days ago I almost cried in front of my kids in the classroom. It wasn't because I was fed up or frustrated- quite the opposite in fact. I had just finished teaching a lesson (which when it goes well is a real high point in and of itself) and was watching each student work in groups, talking with fervor about the character traits of people in a novel, discussing passionately with each other, not about who stole whose pencil or which kid touched whom, but about ideas and opinions and thoughts. They were discovering, with a little push from me, the beauty and excitement of reading. It is in these moments, when tears spring to my eyes, that I realize just how much teaching means to me, how much I love being a teacher and the fact that I am in the right place. It was a beautiful thing.

And yet...and yet. Everything I do, all the planning, reacting, hours, phone calls, meetings, grading, all the endless work...it is not nor will it ever be enough. There will always be a thing I could have done better, a different way of saying something that would have reached that one kid, that extra moment of whispered conversation instead of semi-public humiliation, making this assignment just a bit harder, pushing my kids that much further. No matter how long I teach, I will never be the best teacher I can be. And I'm alright with that. The idea doesn't frustrate or dishearten me. On the contrary, it is the whisper in my head that pushes me on, keeps me interested, constantly telling me, even in moments of pure joy, "Yes, be content in this moment, be pleased with right now. Take it in, let it fill you. Now the moment has passed. Look forward, keep moving, keep changing, do even better next time."

It is in this thought that teaching is saved from being routine, but is instead a rigorous workout that never flat-lines, a steady climb towards the lofty goal of making a difference. Instead of thinking that my students are doing alright if the class average on a test is 86%, I think, "How can I reteach for that 14% and should it have been harder for the kids who did well?" Instead of looking at a child, a CHILD of 11 or 12 years that annoys the s@#+ out of me and thinking, "Well there's a lost cause," I force myself to think, "What more can I do?" No one should give up on a person who has only lived on this earth for a decade. No one. That is too young for all of their personality to be their fault. Even if they ARE the most annoying person on earth.

On a Thursday afternoon, after working seven hours to keep fifty-three 11 and 12 year-olds quiet and productive, it is HARD not to yell or freak out or go ballistic on a kid who lies to your face, replies back in a tone that implies 'make me,' pushes their books off their desk, makes faces behind your back, says something mean to their classmate, or couldn't care less about what you are saying in your lesson that you prepared on your weekend and put the finishing touches on Monday morning at 5:30. Yes, that is hard. It's even harder to hear about some of the things my students have had to live through. But the HARDEST part is looking at yourself and thinking- 'WOW, bad choice on the student's part. I need to get over that and not take it personally. Now, what can I do to prevent that from happening again?' That taking hold of responsibility for everything that happens in the classroom is the HARDEST part of teaching, and it is what separates the bad from the good from the great.

Moving on now from my personal realization to a personal rant...I truly believe that if every student had an excellent teacher every year for every subject, our educational system would be different. I don't mean good teachers would solve every problem: there are just too many factors for that (problems at home, mental illness, poverty, lack of parental involvement, funding, belch, blech, blah), but my God it would make a difference! If you don't want to help students succeed, if you couldn't care less about children, if you consider teaching to be a pain and a chore, then GET OUT of education.

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for "Superman," which is what got me fired up and righteous. There are many controversial topics talked about in the film (ranging from the ineptitude of Teacher Unions to the hope placed in charter schools, which while portrayed positively in the movie are currently factories of failure in St. Louis) and many teachers wouldn't agree with much of the film, but it spoke to me. First and foremost it reminded me that I am lucky to be in such a wonderful place teaching on-level students, and that the rest of the country is not so fortunate. Secondly, it made me feel appreciated. It's nice to hear someone tell you "Good job" every once in a while. The documentary gave me that wonderful sense that someone out there knows how much work and dedication I put into my profession everyday for the children.

Because that's the whole purpose and reason of schools. It's the reason I moved away from my beloved family and beautiful Northwest. It is why I spend six days a week completely focused on lessons, materials, and what I can do better to reach all my students. It is for my children. They are mine. For a year, one shortened year, I have the privilege of teaching these gorgeous kids. I teach for them. They are worth it. That statement is my calling.
This movie, amid its humor and politics saw the true problem with our educational system. Among the buerocracy and stupidity and lack of responsibility, the adults have lost the mission. America's education, the free and public school system open to all isn't about the kids anymore. It's about the adults. This swollen, man eating blob of paperwork and bosses and funding, all telling each other what to do again and again with no one left to listen or do the dirty work, holding everyone back so that no one is left behind, this is the problem. The adults of this world who are in charge of things need to take responsibility, sacrifice their own personal vendettas and tenure and comfort and make a damn difference for these kids who come to school for a way out. We don't need to make them feel good about themselves and cheat them from ever earning something, we need to TEACH them and prepare them so that THEY can make their own choices, so that THEY can lead this country better than it has been led before. Right now, we're just teaching them to be us, and that is not good enough.


  1. WAY TO GO JESSIE!!!!! I know you absolutely work your butt off for those kids, spending hours of your own time finding ways to help them learn. I love how passionate you are about what you do, and I am sooooo happy for your kids, because they have someone who genuinely cares about them, loves them, and will do anything for them. You are so fun, energetic, and enthusiastic, I'm sure those kids love coming to YOUR class! Thanks for being such an amazing role model and for all of your hard hard hard work!! You are an AMAZING teacher!!!!!!

  2. Thanks darling- same to you about nursing and good luck!

  3. Your my hero sis, :) those kids have no idea what an amazing teacher they have. Keep trucking and know that were behind you all the way!

  4. Ansel Emery CummingsOctober 24, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    Jessie. I have not seen nor spoken to you since I was the age of the children you're teaching, and you were even younger than that. Your sister Caitlin posted a link to this article on facebook, and I decided to read it.

    I must say, it is so wonderful to read about your work; about how the current education system is a state that does not push children ahead to exceed and excell, and about how impassioned you are for teaching your students. Teachers who view teaching as a pain-in-the-donkey certainly don't benefit their students' overall growth, for they don't help the children be excited about being educated.

    It makes me very happy to know there are teachers in this country like you. I feel that you can make a real difference in the next generations of people who inhabit this world by touching their lives now and helping them open up to the wonder and grandness of life.

    Growing up and going through school, I was fortunate to have a least a few teachers who cared about the education of their children, and were actually intelligent and capable of teaching. It is to these teachers that I pay much gratitude for helping countless students work toward excellence. (Thank you Mr. Dave Paulek, for nurturing creativity and intelligent freedom of thought!!!)

    And now my thanks go out to you, Jessie! I can tell from your writing that you have grown to be an intelligent and caring person. Thank you for going into teaching! If only more bright and loving people were educating our children, then our future might be a brighter and loving place!

    You've just strengthened my desire to teach that much more.

    And for this, I thank you again. :-)

    Mr. Ansel E. Cummings