Why I Teach, by Ted Chambers.

Today the US Senate voted to confirm Betsy Devos as the US Secretary of Education – a very wealthy person who has dedicated her time, energy and considerable wealth trying to convert America’s school budgets into profit centers for big corporations.

She will undoubtedly spend her tenure as EdSec trying to destroy public education in the United States, as she and her cronies on the far right have vowed to do for more than four decades.

Here is my response.

This morning I had one of those moments where I was feeling overwhelmed and more than a little cranky. Part of it is the time of year – lots of work stuff piling up all at once. And part of is it dealing with 7th-graders a little less than two weeks out from February vacation. And part of it is dealing with this one particular student who has been getting on my last nerve. A boy who is incredibly brilliant (a word I don’t throw around lightly), but whose home life is such a mess that it is a never-ending challenge to get him engaged and on-task in a consistent way (in any of his classes). He has a good week here and there and then gets derailed. We try new strategies and new approaches – some work for a few days, but then he snaps back to his old apathetic and disengaged self.

A few weeks ago, while I was being observed by my principal, this child raised his hand made a comment that easily ranks as one of the most intelligent things any student has ever said in my class. Ever. No exaggeration. I was teaching a lesson about the differences between ‘abstract’ versus ‘material’ as part of the gaming project I was launching when he casually raised his hand and succinctly explained both concepts and made deep, deep connections to the material we have been studying in class. I was not surprised because he has done this a couple of times before (but I am not going to lie either – I was pretty psyched that he did it during my evaluation, lol).

But this morning was different. He was resistant. Again. He didn’t have a pencil. Again. He didn’t have his notebook. Again. He didn’t have a game to play for the project (still). He didn’t have any interest. Again. All he had was his typical excuses and apathy. And one obnoxious and deliberately annoying comment after another, each intended to push my buttons. He was stalling me, putting me off, and deploying every strategy he could to avoid work and learning.

I was frustrated and juuuust about to lose my…..patience…when I looked down and saw that the pants he was wearing were completely stained from hem to pockets. His school uniform sweatshirt didn’t look clean either. He was unwashed, unkempt and just utterly neglected.

I took a deep breath and sat down in the big comfy office chair in front of my desk and gathered myself. I sat there for a second and felt all of the anger and frustration drain from my body into the floor. I am proud to be an emotive person – unashamed to display sadness or tears, and yet ironically there have only been a few times when my emotions have really gotten the better of me while I am working – this in spite of witnessing some extremely horrific and/or evocative situations over my 21 years in the classroom.

But today was one of those days. I thought how close I came to venting my frustration on this poor kid, whose childhood makes my own look like the Brady Bunch (hint: the Chambers clan weren’t quite the Gallaghers of Shameless fame, but we were definitely on that spectrum). Instead of snapping at him, I asked him to sit down. I made it through class, conferenced with kids about their writing. Made an occasional perfunctory comment to re-direct him, but just let it slide. For the moment.

When class was over, I went out to my car and for maybe the third or fourth time in my entire career, I actually sat and cried as I thought about what this poor kid must be going through at home. The neglect and abuse he endures, and how difficult it is for him to get himself dressed and get to school every day – never mind build and sustain a sense of achievement or even stability in his life.

Then I drove down to Dunkin Donuts and picked up a box of hot chocolate, some cups, and a box of 50 Munchkins and brought them back to share with the students. At the end of the next period, I asked another student to go and get him. He came and sat across from me in the other big comfy office chair and we talked calmly and quietly for a few minutes while he enjoyed some hot chocolate and a few donut holes. I told him I was sorry for being impatient with him earlier. He apologized to me for not being prepared or participating. He then volunteered that he had chosen a game to play as part of our project and has actually been playing it now for a couple of weeks (the little stinker). I told him again for probably the millionth time how smart he is. He just shook his head ‘no’, and then the bell rang and he lined up with the rest of the class.

There is no easy fix for the obstacles that stand in this child’s way. There is no magic wand for me to wave to take away his pain or make his life better. But tomorrow I will go back to work, alongside my amazing and incredibly talented, caring and dedicated colleagues, and together all of us will do everything we know how to create an environment for our students that is safe and nurturing – and leads them down a path toward a love of learning and success in life. We will do it for him, and for all of the other students whom we care for and are honored to teach.

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