Teaching Opinion

Students: You’re the Reason I Come to School Every Day

By Nancy Flanagan — January 12, 2017 3 min read
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Videos clips like this are catnip for teachers. I have never met a teacher—and I know thousands—who couldn’t tell you about particular students or a class that made the daily grind worthwhile. The principle under these heart-warming school-based media projects is timeless: Successful learning is always about personal relationships.

Go ahead, indulge in a tear-jerking moment. There are a lot of these circulating. If you’re having a down day in the classroom (another timeless feature of teaching), thinking about students whose enthusiasm, persistence and cheerfulness make the work rewarding is an instant pick-me-up.

Teaching is a human profession. They may not tell you that in ed school any more—I’m not sure. I graduated in another era, when we all wanted to have “freedom,” intrinsically rewarding classrooms and students filled with wonder and joy, clarifying their values. Really.

Compare that to teaching like a champion—and data walls, public shaming by precise numerical degrees.

Watch the students’ faces in these videos, as their teachers try to explain why they’ve been singled out. Teachers fumble around (“We were asked to pick someone, umm, who was, like, special to us, umm...”), tasting the unfamiliar words of candidly expressed affection for a student. Watch students’ dawning recognition that the teacher is going to say something warm and appreciative, give them a dollop of praise or regard. They tentatively smile or try to suppress a goofy grin.

It’s powerful, in a simple and human way.

School talk today is generally around rigorous content and 21st century skills and how we can measure those to make schools accountable. There is, however, a much more powerful, if subtle, set of factors that makes going to school worthwhile for both students and teachers.

Any teacher-student relationship involves a whole cluster of things going on: trust, motivation, purpose, persistence, curiosity. Humor...and joy. Multiply that by 30—or 150—students every day.

You come to class with a smile on your face! Several teachers say that, in the videos, as a kind of default-positive statement. What does it mean? Mutual valuing: I expect to learn something today! I’ve got something to teach you!

One year, my middle school launched a “Respect” project, entirely teacher-led. Teacher leaders devised several school-wide activities to engender better communication and respect, in all directions: Lunchtime conversations. Student essays. Adult readings. We decided that we couldn’t expect respect from students, until we respected each other.

We posted high school graduation photos of the staff in a display case, with teachers’ answers to this question: When you were in 8th grade, what did you think you’d be doing with your life?

Students clustered around that case, every day for weeks.

When I think back, I can still easily recall hundreds of kids who made teaching a pleasure. I had a weakness for smart, funny students who hid their keen intelligence (girls, especially) and kids who fell in love with music. But plenty of oddball adolescents made my “favorite student” list—the list you keep mentally, under wraps.

There was the significantly pregnant high school senior that I took on a band trip to Toronto because she was dying to see Phantom of the Opera before having her first child. And tiny Stephen who was 12, but looked like a 2nd grader; his growth had been stunted by abuse, and he was struggling to fit in with a foster family. Shana and Scott, who didn’t realize how beautiful and perfect they were until they came out.

There was a couple with such hots for each other that their parents (both sides) warned me to keep an eye on them at band camp. They’re married now, with four kids, and I played at their wedding. And Andy, whose father had a fatal heart attack while they were hunting deep in the woods, and became a man overnight.

There were students with learning challenges and valedictorians. Superb musicians and mediocre players who were in the band only because it was a family that would have them as members. One of my favorite students is now battling cancer courageously, and another just posted a shot of his infant son, recovering from open heart surgery.

One of those kids who hid his keen intelligence poured gasoline over himself and lit a match.

I loved them all, at various times, and some of them surprised me by flying much higher than I might have predicted. I hope I showed them: You’re one of the reasons I love teaching. You make our class lively. Thanks for showing up and doing what you’re supposed to do—but also, thanks for making me laugh and feel hopeful for the future.

It shouldn’t take a video camera and microphone. But if it does—let’s watch.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.