Today’s guest blog is an acceptance speech given a few nights ago, written by Stephanie Hulbert, Teacher of the Year for the Sidney Central School District, in Sidney, N.Y.
One of my favorite things about teaching at the middle school level is the reaction I get from others when asked what I do. When I share that I’m a teacher, my new acquaintances often comment on how fantastic that is. Then, when asked what I teach, and I answer as I have through the years...6th, 7th or 8th grade English...the conversation ends with my same new acquaintances looking sad for me, seeing as how I obviously ended up drawing the short straw, and noting that my days must be...interesting.
Yes. Yes, they are interesting. Our classes of tweens and newly-turned teens are full of energy and excitement. Of course, the excitement is not always related to academics. The middle school years are ones filled with emotions. These emotions are often pertaining to anything from the thrill of a new relationship to grief at the thought that last year’s friend is not, in fact, this year’s friend.
Middle school aged children want to be independent, young adults...yet, they still crave the loving support of someone from home. It’s a time when their peers become the centers of their universes and the desire to find a place to fit-in and be accepted somewhere becomes a priority. I love working with this age group, and as crazy as our days often are, I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. Even during my recent time away from the classroom, I missed the constant buzz and nearly palpable energy that is, in and of itself, middle school defined.
It was just the school year before this that my request for a leave of absence was granted. Our son was starting kindergarten and I longed to be present. I wanted to be there for him and to watch as our son began his first year in school. I know that, for so many reasons, I was lucky to be able to do this. I also know that besides the luxury of time, I was given an incredible gift.
It was during this year, helping with school activities, picking him up every day after school, watching him smile and listening to him excitedly recap the events of his days that my heart couldn’t help but be happy. I felt happiness in the knowledge that our child was finding school to be a place where he felt safe, where he enjoyed learning and was successfully growing into one of the many young people who will one day be the cornerstones of our collective futures. It was wonderful.
It was wonderful to witness him beginning to see himself as a learner, and at the same time, it was wonderful to learn about myself, too. I realized what an unbelievably large role we, as educators, play in the lives of our students. I know in my heart, even more than I did before gaining this perspective, that children learn more from what we do than what we say. No greater confirmation of this could come for me than what was said during a dinner conversation earlier this school year, after I returned to the classroom and started to forget the perspective gained during my leave.
That night, our little man, now a seasoned 1st grader, was sharing all he had learned in Science recently and was telling us about the different systems in the human body. He paused and asked if we knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. Most recently it had been a fireman, a master LEGO builder, an archeologist and the guy at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru window because they had really cool Halloween decorations...so understand, I had no idea where this would go. My husband asked him if he wanted to be a doctor, considering the topic of conversation, but our son said no.
He proudly announced that he wanted to be a teacher...and my heart sank.
Did he really know what he was saying? Every frustration that I had at that moment concerning education rained down on me like a monsoon - and please know, overall, I’m lucky enough to still find joy in the little day-to-day things that come up in my classroom. I can say I enjoy any real “teaching” that I get to do. So many working in education - from teachers to administrators - can’t honestly say that anymore. I don’t need to tell you how, even after the time away that I had the year prior, when education is evolving as a result of outside influences and pressures that feel so out of our control, it’s easy for us to become overwhelmed and lose site of the positive energy that envelopes us in those first days and weeks of a new school year.
So many things about this profession have changed since I started teaching sixteen years ago - everything from unrealistic mandates being made by politicians who have never stepped foot in front of a classroom and have no memory of school, save a possible solitary experience when some teacher, somewhere, must have really made them mad...to training on how to protect our children from sick people who want to do nothing else but take the lives of innocents in our schools. Why would my son want to do this? Why would anyone want to do this?
So...I asked him. Why? And he told me. “Because you can be funny and have a puppet that helps teach Science!” Then, he giggled and asked for more pasta. And, as suddenly as all of my feelings of apprehension and longing for “better” for my child came, they went. I was just thankful. I was thankful for the reminder that with everything that is changing around us, there are things that remain constant that we can count on to get us through.
For me, I can count on things like my students coming into my classroom each morning and commenting on how my room smells like Dunkin’ Donuts coffee...as if it were a new thing...every...day.
I can count on, at least once a day, having something new to add to the book that I’ve told my students I’m writing. Its working title is The Things I Never Thought I Would Have to Say, But Do In Middle School. (After 16 years, I have several drafts.)
I can count on being exhausted. The kind of exhausted you think that you could almost die from, then you realize that it’s due to the fact that you’ve given everything you are and everything you have to being someone who strives to motivate and inspire every child that walks into your classroom to do their best - to be their best...and it’s ok.
I can count on feeling overwhelmed. The kind of overwhelmed you feel when facing mounds of modules and assessments and data...and you feel like you’re buried under paperwork and in this alone. Then you step back and look around...and see...more. Each other. All of us.
I can count on the people here in our district. The people whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with, to teach with, to learn with through the years - those who have become trusted colleagues and treasured friends - who make this school district more than the place in which I choose to work. It is the staff here that has made this a place where we have celebrated together...and where we have grieved together. It is the people here who encourage me, inspire me, and empower me. It is the people here who are the constant for me that, when all is considered, make me willing to go “all in.”
It was that night at dinner that our little scholar helped me to remember what a career in eduaction is all about. It was he who reminded me that it is the creativity, the humanity and the compassion in what we do as educators that makes the difference to our kids, and to each other.
It was our son who reminded me, in that simple reason that he had for wanting to be a teacher, that I was losing sight of what still makes teaching the thing that my heart calls me towards. It was because of that poignant reminder of what I have learned in my many years in education, and what I value, that I was thankful. Thankful for the peace that comes from understanding that although it’s easy to dwell on all that is changing in our profession, we still have the choice in how we face the challenges that have been placed before us. That, my friends, is simply a cool thing to know...and I thank our son, an amazing little teacher in his own right, for the lesson.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.