Teachers shouldn’t be so conditioned that genuine gratitude and thank you notes take them by surprise, but they do.
I’m a good teacher – I know that. I know, in the abstract at least, that my job as a teacher is invaluable to my community, my country, and society as a whole. However, I also know that my career choice is consistently ridiculed, undervalued, underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid. I knew this going in to teacher preparatory courses, and I knew this entering the teaching workforce.
I wasn’t going in to it for the fame or the pay. Truly “famous” teachers only exist in the movies, and those doing the best and toughest work in their classrooms are only known by their colleagues and their students. Some teachers gain moderate fame throughout the teaching profession (Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Harvey Danielson, to name a few) because of their real-world contributions to pushing teaching forward and they tour professional development conferences in the hopes of sharing and spreading their ideas to other teachers in need of new strategies. Sure, they get paid too (for their books and speaking), but they are also taking time out of their own classrooms in order to attend these conferences and attempting to make the work easier for all of us along the way.
I went into teaching because as clichéd as it is, I was born to do it. Every adult role model and mentor in my life as I matured told me that I should be a teacher, and even after conversing with strangers I was often asked, “Are you a teacher?” When I answered in the negative that I was not, the other person would invariably say, “Well, you should be.”
One of the reasons I took so long to get into teaching is that it’s hard to know if you are a good teacher without adequate feedback, and the average feedback that teachers receive is negative. “You failed my child in English – why did you do that?”
“Your test scores are down this quarter – what are you doing wrong?”
“Your class is boring.”
“Your class has too much work.”
“Your class isn’t challenging me enough.”
“Your class is too easy.”
“Your class is the worst I’ve ever had.”
Think about it; how often do you actually write letters of thanks or give feedback when you have had a good experience? How often have you been moved to give immediate and scorching feedback when you feel wronged or ill-served? I would imagine that your number for the second scenario is far higher than the first.
Then there’s the issue of compensation. Yes, teachers are paid, but poorly when considering education and experience to pay ratios. “But you get summers off!” HA! No. Not in the slightest, and debating that is another post entirely. “But you get the everyday reward of helping to shape the future!” Well…kind of. The everyday rewards of teaching are more intangible.
It’s an excited “Good morning, Miss!” as a student sees you entering the building, and instead of dragging your feet to your classroom you look up, make eye-contact with the greeter, return their smile and salutation, and walk to your classroom feeling a little brighter than you were before.
It’s a knowing, “Oh! I get it!” exclaimed by a student who grasps a concept that they have been struggling with until that lightbulb turned on in their brain.
It’s a “Hey, Magy, thanks for the chat yesterday – it really helped me get my ideas straight,” from a colleague who sought you out and you stayed after school together brainstorming solutions to a teaching problem until well into rush hour.
It’s seeing mastery and proficiency increase as the year passes, however slowly it comes.
But mostly, we’re alone in these celebrations because they happen internally, behind the door to our individual classrooms. Sure, data gets discussed constantly in terms of standardized testing, but actual learning and deeper critical thought takes place outside of shaded ovals, and there’s rarely time to talk about it when data is all-important.
We’re alone in our celebrations because outside of education, no one cares if your first Socratic Circle of the year exceeded your highest expectations, discussion went off like popcorn in a kettle, and all you did was lay the foundation and the students did the rest. Outside of education, no one cares if W____, a chronically absent and tardy student, was present every single day, on time, for two weeks because “I love hearing you read the Odyssey, Miss, and I didn’t want to miss any part of it.” Outside of my classroom, no one cares that for the first time in over seven years of instructing students through the Capstone Project that every single one of my 75 senior students turned in their first assignment on or before the due date. Every. Single. One. These may seem like small potatoes, but teachers in the trenches understand the weight that these things carry.
Since these rewards for teaching are mostly intrinsic, when we receive extrinsic, positive feedback, it can be shocking. It can bring tears to our eyes and completely stop our day in that moment because of its intense gravity. This morning it was an e-mail from a student who graduated last spring, who I had the pleasure of having as a student in three of her four high school years.
I had e-mailed her at the start of the school year regarding the large anthology that we use for AP English Literature because the copy checked out in her name last year had never been returned. This was out of character for her, and also a blow to me in terms of lesson planning as I was four books short to start this school year. She had replied politely, but quite concisely, that she had returned the book to the office on a day when I was unavailable and hoped that it turned up. Well, last week, it did, in a stack of random stuff on the librarian’s desk. After I found it, I sent her a quick e-mail to let her know that the book was found and asked after her now that her first semester of college was underway. Usually, I don’t receive replies when I e-mail former students. I chalk it up to either dropping their old e-mail address or the general busyness of life and do not take it personally. Then, if I do receive a reply, I welcome it.
Hey Mrs. Magy,
Thanks for letting me know about the book. And thanks for asking about me, I am doing great. I’ve been really busy and had been meaning for a while to email you. I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. I really do appreciate you for everything you’ve done from teaching us how to annotate to writing research because it has made my classes much easier for me. So I’m taking this gender study class and the first day of class she reads “Girl”, and she tells us to interpret it. Me and Z___ looked at each other in class and remembered it. And because we read it in our AP class, excitingly I was able to engage myself in the discussion with these college students. It was a very cool experience, and it was your teaching that brought me to that level. Even though we didn’t pass the AP exam, it still was the most efficient English class I’ve taken. So I want to thank you again. Thank you for being patient all these years with Frontier, even though the students and staff don’t deserve you. Thanks you for teaching all of the English I’d ever need in two years. Thank you for guiding, helping, and inspiring us to be the best we can be. We love you and I love you!
Wow, thank you for such a touching and genuine message. I am having a really tough year (not with AP, that class is great, just like yours was), and it seems like the universe knows exactly what I need to hear and who I need to hear it from to remind me of my purpose. Your heartfelt message reaffirmed that my work here is important and that I am needed right where I am. Thank you for that. ❤
I am happy to hear that you are taking a gender studies class and even more excited to hear that you were able to engage in discussion with the rest of the class with the feisty confidence I know you possess. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that class to hear what ideas you and Z____ shared to be digested and considered by your classmates and professor. I’m sure that it was a productive and insightful discussion with both of you taking part in it.
Your e-mail defrosted my cold and distant mood and attitude this morning. It means so much to me to hear that my courses and instruction were meaningful and ultimately helpful to you. I wish all of the best for you, and am here to help you any way I can as you continue pushing forward toward your goals.
Sometimes you cry out into the abyss and your words are swallowed by the darkness. Other times, your cries are heard, and answered.