It was rarely a good thing when LaRon smiled in school.
It usually meant he was up to something.
He was late to class and wanted to see if I’d notice. He just copied another student’s homework and wondered if he’d get away with it. He was talking crap and hoped someone would take it to the next level.
As his teacher, I became rather familiar with that smile, and it sent shivers down my spine.
But on the last day of school, I couldn’t help but give him a smile back.
A few minutes before the last bell of the year, I stood before my class of 8th graders and gave them each a shout out.
“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be your teacher,” I said.
They shifted in their seats, immediately silent. They wanted to hear this.
“Some of you have been a huge pain in my butt,” I conceded.
And almost all heads in the room turned to LaRon.
And he smiled.
Not a mischievous smile. Not a warning of wrongdoing yet to come.
He was slightly embarrassed.
So I went on:
“But I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished this year. Each and every one of you. It has been my privilege to be here for you,” and I nodded at LaRon to make sure he knew I included him in what I was saying.
Because I do mean him.
Students like LaRon keep an old man like me on my toes. No doubt. But look at all he did – all he overcame this year.
His writing improved exponentially.
Back in September, he thought a paragraph was a sentence or two loosely connected, badly spelled full of double negatives and verbs badly conjugated. Now he could write a full five-paragraph essay that completely explained his position with a minimum of grammatical errors.
Back in September, the most complex book he had read was “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Now he had read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did I know? Because I had read it with him. We had all read these books together and stopped frequently to talk about them.
Back in September, if he raised his hand to ask a question, it was usually no more complex than “Can I go to the bathroom?” Now he was asking questions about where the Nazis came from, what happened to Mr. Frank after the war, did Harper Lee ever write any other books, and is the fight for civil rights over.
The last day of school is one of the hardest for me, because my classes are doubled. I don’t just have my students – I also have the ghosts of who they were at the beginning of the year.
They all change so much. They’re like different people at the end, people I helped guide into being.
And I must say I absolutely love it!
As hard as it is being a teacher, as much as you’re attacked in the media and the government, as much as you’re expected to do, the supplies and books you buy with your own money, the hours after school while your own children sit at home without you, the late nights grading and the mountains of paperwork you have to fill out to justify being kept on another year – even with all that – I love being a teacher.
And my greatest joy is the tough kids.
Every year that’s usually who I get.
When I started teaching I expected to be more of an advanced placement educator. I have several degrees, experience as a working journalist… I’m really a rather bookish guy, myself. But when I got in the classroom, it was the troubled ones, the ones in trouble whom I really excelled at teaching.
I had only been in the profession for a few years when I stopped my car in a really bad neighborhood. I was looking for an address for a homebound student and couldn’t find it. Up walked a group of tough looking kids that could have been extras from “Boyz N the Hood.” I thought my life was over until I heard, “Mr. Singer! What you doing here?”
“Andre!?” I said incredulously. “Little Andre!?
“Not so little anymore,” he smiled.
He dapped me up and gave me directions.
I see former students everywhere. Or more accurately, they see me.
The other day I was at the movies with my daughter, when a grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey, Mr. Singer. Hey, little Singer. What movie are you going to see?”
I didn’t recognize him at first because he had a smile on his face. When I taught him more than a decade ago he never smiled. He had serious health issues and always seemed miserable.
But here he was. He had made it. And though it took a while for his name to reach my lips, he knew me like I was a member of his family.
That’s the kind of relationship you get as a teacher. You’re there for the hard times. You’re there for the bad. But you help each other through it.
That’s something non-teachers don’t understand. My students help me as much as I help them.
Sometimes I got to school worried or upset about various concerns in my personal life, but as soon as those kids file into the room, all that noise is gone. In a split second, it’s forgotten. I get a burst of energy, because I’m needed. I’m there for them.
If you’ve never taught, you have no idea how good that feels.
One evening I was sitting at my desk at school, a stack of papers in front of me, feeling frustrated. I wanted to go home but there was so much work left to do. (I don’t like taking work home. When I’m there I’m a full-time husband and dad.)
So I sat in class debating what to do when three huge high school football players appeared in the doorway and came running at me.
I cringed, cowering in my seat about to be tackled.
“Mr. Singer!” they screamed, stopping in unison and giving me, their former teacher, a bear hug.
Moments like that make it all worth it.
The kids know you care. I’ve heard some folks say that none of that matters. You don’t have to care about your students. You don’t have to like them. You just have to teach them.
I couldn’t do it any other way.
So on that last day when LaRon looked up and smiled, I smiled back.
There was so much meaning in his smile. So much joy behind his eyes.
More than any report card, he knew what I knew.
He knew that despite a challenging home life, despite the call of the streets, and tremendous difficulty of concentrating and believing in himself, he had really achieved something this year.
He knew because I knew. And he smiled because I smiled.
And when that last bell finally rang, he took all of that with him.
I can’t believe I get to do all of that again this year with a new group of children!
Damn! I really love this job!
32 thoughts on “I Teach The Toughest Kids, and I Love It”
This was so beautiful! I sent it to my boss and no I’m not a teach and neither is he. We talk about quitting every day and teaching, though. His wife is a Vice-Principal. This is so emotional to read. It reminds me of middle school. It wasn’t until after college, running into one of my teachers at the mall that I realized, most of my teachers must have been fresh out of college when they taught us. We are a great bunch. City attitudes, but cool a** nerds. We celebrated them like they celebrated us. I looked at her and said, “Why don’t you look old?!” LOL!!! and it clicked. Honestly, teachers change your life. I am a better person because of my middle school years. They changed me and they changed how I felt about learning. Some rookie teachers thought we were pretty special and so we acted like special kids. It makes all of the difference to genuinely care because they can tell. I mentor at my old middle school and I am not some stuff, “So do you want to know my background?” mentor. I ask one of my old teachers about the kid and I meet them and tell them what I understand and ask them to fill in the blanks. I want them to know that I could be shopping or Netflix and Chilling… but I want to be there with them. I also want them to want to be there with me, and I love it.
Great read. Thank you for putting this into the universe.
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OH! I forgot to add… . “He dapped me up and gave me directions.” … that sentence right there confirmed what kind of kids you work with. How perfect! “Tough kids” means different things to different people. However, reading that, was confirmation. I smiled so big and reread that line a few times. It felt good to read. LOL =)
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Your posts are so inspiring. Thank you. My preschoolers got me through a bad divorce. Hugs and kisses every morning. Joy over every little discovery. Just what I needed!
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I love this 😊 I’m a special ed teacher, and the behavioral consultant, so I tend to see all the toughest kids in a low income urban district. I totally get this! As exhausted as I was in June, I can’t wait to get back to work this fall.
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THIS. Yes. Thank you.
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Wonderful statement. Thanks very much for your deep commitment to kids and your eloquence.
Having been an urban teacher and administrator, I’ve had some of these same experiences.
This is exactly how I experienced it as a high school English teacher in Providence, RI. I wrote a book about it called Stubborn Hope: Memoir of an Urban Teacher. You can sample it – or buy it – on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean. Working with urban kids is one of the best things that happened to me.
And I’d like to say tthat you don’t have to be a rookie to truly care and to be able to make a difference. In fact it can take a few years for a white, middle class teacher to begin to know how to make a difference. Many, many rookies don’t stay around that long.
Thanks for this touching and inspiring post. Teaching 3 & 4 y.o.’s is quite different: the rewards are all upfront & immediate, & each incoming class mirrors & floods back with matching affection, from the shyest & the snarliest to the least-complicated & most open.
As a weekly ‘special’ to regional PreK’s, my experience w/alums is opposite to yours. Just this evening I lingered on on 8-y.o. face in the supermarket, thinking how glad I was that she looked happy & engaged, 5 yrs later. But it’s rare for an elem-age kid to remember that 1/2-hr-a-wk PreK Spanish teacher, tho they may linger on my face for an extra beat.
A while ago a new family moved in behind me, & I encountered pre-teen brother, sister (onetime students) & friends in the back bushes. I greeted them by name, startling them. “Oh, yeh..” said the youngest, “Señora Vigi!”, & he looked as astonished as if a long-ago bedtime story character had materialized in his new back yard!
I, unfortunately, did not enjoy this article. It’s filled with micro-aggressions. “Boyz N The Hood”??? “I thought my life was over?”
This mindset shows that you haven’t spent enough time examining your mindsets about your students. If you see a group
of “tough kids” and your initial thought is that your life is over…..You shouldn’t be teaching kids. I’m sure you mean well, but this is a part of the problem affecting our black and brown boys in America.
Bee, I am very sorry you took my article to be full of micro-aggressions. This was not my intention. I don’t see how describing my students as looking like extras from “Boyz N The Hood” is disrespectful. That’s how they were dressed. If I described a bunch of people at a Country and Western bar as looking like extras from “The Magnificent Seven,” would that be disrespectful? However, I understand where you’re coming from with my description of my own fear of these children. However, these were my honest impressions more than a decade ago when I started teaching. I don’t feel that way anymore. I was trying to show how wrong this impression was and how I came to realize that. I can’t tell you how many times I hear white people say they’re afraid to walk into a black neighborhood. I always ask “Why? Have you tried? Black people are just like you and me.” Then I sometimes tell this story about the homebound student to explode this misconception about black neighborhoods and black people. Most white people have a warped view of black people – even black children. I hope I have grown in this regard, but I am not perfect. I am a product of my environment and my culture. I try to get beyond it to the truth, but I don’t succeed sometime. All I can do is keep trying and caring.
This post is problematic on many levels. I want to first say that I am a white, female educator who has taught students of color for many years, and I am continuously investigating the optics of my place in a school where I have often been the only white person in the room. Respectfully, your post reeks of a white savior complex. Perhaps you are helping students grow academically and socio-emotionally, but the way in which you talk about your students as “troubled” or at a deficit (not the AP kids) implies that these students of color would be “less than.” Second, this post reaffirms incorrect assumptions about (all) youth of color, in that you speak of “the call to the streets.” While students may experience a home or out-of-school environment that makes navigating the white patriarchic world much harder, you did not save this child. The line where you say “He knew because I knew” brings with it a notion of you, a white male, giving a young Black student the “gift” of your time and presence. Please think critically about your assumptions about your students, and the impact of those assumptions, even if you perceive your intention as well-meant.
JJ, I don’t mean to imply that I think these children are worth any less than other kids, but that is exactly how the school system treats them. Moreover, my students are troubled not because of their race but because they are suffering under the constraints of generational poverty. It is no accident that the low SES kids are in my class and the high SES kids are in the “Advanced” class. Perhaps I am guilty of passing judgement on “the call to the streets” but I don’t think anyone considers that a good life. I’ve had many students tell me they’d like to do something else but don’t see the “white patriarchy” as you put it to be a real option. Finally, I agree that I did not save anyone. That is not within my power. All I did was help this child find himself. Maybe I have too high an opinion of what I do for my students but I have dedicated my life to trying to help. I think that’s worth something.
When you refer to students as potential extras to “Boyz N The Hood” not only is it extremely offensive but it’s a flat out racist statement. It seems as if you need work in race and equity and understanding your own white privilege and your implicit biases. You wrote this to give yourself credit, not your students who actually did all the work.
Mitch, I am far from perfect. I’m sorry that description hit you as racist. It captures my thought process at the time. I’m not looking for credit or to be seen as some sort of white savior. I’m just a human being trying to do the right thing. I don’t succeed half the time, but I try. I agree with you that my students deserve all the credit. Being their teacher makes me a better person.
Steven, I think that your critics here saw some of the language you used and some of your attitudes as being racist because they would be if you were generalizing or talking about people you didn’t know. But you know your students and you have the best understanding of their lives as much as a teacher from a different race and background can. I admit that as a white, middle class woman, I could be wrong. I am not able to see your article from the perspective of a person of color. In any case, I admire how much you care about your students. And your kids do know you care and that matters a lot.
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