Monday, January 4, 2016

Why Teachers Teach On

By Kate Ulfers, Mery Volunteer Corps, serving in Detroit, Michigan

Teaching is hard. As a student, I took my teachers for granted; I complained about the tactless and un-passionate ones, and mildly sassed the effective but boring ones. As a student, I had zero appreciation for the time and energy my teachers spent on incorporating benchmarks into their lesson plans, on creating tests and assignments, or on the never-ending grading.  Now that I have served as a high school teacher for the last 7 months, I have a whole new sense of awe for what teachers and educators do. That being said, one aspect of teaching has still eluded me… why do teachers keep doing what they do? How do they continue the momentum of teaching for 35 years? Essentially, I am at a loss as to why veteran teachers continue to persevere in the classroom, long after the glamour and new-car smell has worn off. It’s not for the great pay or flexible hours. It’s not for the prestige or celebrity status. So why?

I gained a small insight into this recently on a particularly grey and dull Monday. It was a Monday after a long weekend, and I was anticipating untamed and uninterested students whose behavior would range from barely able to stay in their seat to barely able to stay awake. I told myself the night before to give up on trying to predict how horrible this Monday would be… how uncontrollable and talkative the kids would be, how unprepared and incomplete my lesson plan was, how over the long weekend I had probably lost my classroom confidence. On evenings when all of these insecurities are invading my mind, I chant to myself:

“KT, there is zero point spending a whole evening stressing over just two hours of classroom time. You need to prioritize your time and energy, and dreading the unknown is not a priority.”

I felt pretty good when I got to work that morning and classes (as always) were fine. Sure, some kids were a little bit chatty, some a little antsy, but after the first 15 minutes, everyone was relatively calm. My lesson plan was also fine. Considering the kids do most of the work, it landed on them to be productive. My confidence trickled back throughout the class. Good day, all in all.

I was content with this. I survived and now the next 3 hours were to be spent preparing for the next day.

At lunch time, I headed downstairs to carbo-load and I ran into one of my favorite students. He has the lowest grade in both of my classes, and is at risk of not being able to graduate if he doesn‘t pass my class. The thing is, his attitude in class (and out) is funny, sweet and genuine, and he really does try hard in my class. This year he was diagnosed with a learning disorder which might explain a large portion of his academic struggle, but unfortunately he is under the impression that the reason he is struggling is because he’s ‘stupid.’ This drives me CRAZY because intelligence cannot be reflected in a grade; some random letter or percentage does not dictate anyone’s IQ.  But in a system where grades are given such emphasis, it is very frustrating that all his hard work does not reflect in his grade… is it any wonder that he is discouraged?

Anyway, when I bumped into him I congratulated him on his last test. He looked confused because he hadn’t checked his test grade online yet. When I told him he scored a 72% (the highest grade he has received on a test or quiz so far) he looked shocked, and then he just BEAMED. He thanked me (I am not sure why) and I told him that I didn’t have anything to do with his grade, that the 72% was all him and his hard work. He beamed all over again.

That look on his face, oh man,  THAT is why teachers continue to do what they do. THAT is why they still work even though they are paid next to nothing and work hours and hours at home. THAT is why they go into so much debt in order to get a teaching degree. THAT is possibly one of the most rewarding reactions that a student can gift a teacher with. THAT made my day.


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