By Olivia Gillespie
Recently, I was invited to give a presentation on the revisions and instructional shifts within the 2020 Colorado Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating to a group of elementary pre-service teachers. At the conclusion of the presentation, I conducted the usual Q&A. After approximately 20 minutes of answering questions regarding READ Act, disciplinary literacy, and standards-based grading practices, one of the professors raises her hand and says: “Olivia, we really appreciate you for taking time to come and speak to our students. It’s not often that pre-service teachers have the opportunity to hear firsthand from CDE. However, before you go, you being a former classroom teacher, what advice do you have for our students who will be entering the profession next fall?” I immediately responded, “Wow, what advice would I give?” I took a momentary pause and began reflecting upon my experiences as a classroom teacher. Memories of conversations with former colleagues began downloading, as I processed the question posed by the professor. After a few additional seconds of pondering, I said:
Teaching, after parenting, is the hardest, but most rewarding job one can do! It is chalk full of challenges and complexities that evokes the heights and depths of every human emotion. There will be days you will cry tears of joy, tears of sorrow, and tears of frustration. Let me warn you; some days you will cry tears for absolutely no reason at all. You will encounter disgruntle parents, endure blame for low student performance on assessments, and combat misconceptions derived from inaccurate assumptions about the teaching profession. You will be asked to implement changes in policies as a result of SPF (School Performance Framework), the hiring of a new administrative team, or legislation. Sometimes, these systematic, curricular, or organizational changes will require you to adjust your classroom practices without sufficient time to plan or quite honestly, the resources to do so.
You will spend countless hours researching, collaborating with colleagues, and entrenched in different professional development sessions, hoping to add to your repertoire of instructional practices so you can help that ONE struggling student responsible for your sleepless nights. Each day, you will find yourselves navigating between the various hats a teacher wears, because for many students, you are one or maybe the only caring adult in their lives. And you will do all of this, rarely hearing these two little words, “Thank You!” With this said, my advice to you is this: Find your internal “thank you”.
What do I mean by this? Every teacher needs intrinsic motivation. Remember those misconceptions I spoke of earlier? Not many people understand the challenges and complexities embedded within education, nor the responsibilities of a classroom teacher. It comes with inherent stress and pressure that if there isn’t something like an internal “thank you” always present to provide a healthy, productive balance in order to maintain your perspective of why you chose to teach in the first place, then you will succumb to frustration and quit.
A “thank you” is not always expressed verbally, explicitly, or immediately. It may come in the form of a hug after you have helped a student navigate a problem; an “A-Ha” moment that brings a smile to the face or faces of a student or group students who finally grasp that concept or skill you’ve been teaching; or, while shopping at Wal-Mart and while with his or her family, the student notices you and expresses genuine excitement to see you. It could come in the form of an invitation to a student’s birthday or graduation celebration, sporting or religious event, or a family dinner. It could also come in the form of standing at the counter of a Dairy Queen ordering a large New York Strawberry Cheesecake Blizzard, and your former student recognizes you and jumps over the counter to give you a bear hug. “That’s what happened to me two days ago,” I mentioned to this group of pre-service teachers.
Emmanuel (that’s the young man’s name), was a student in my 9thgrade English language arts class six years ago. He was the type of student who often disguised his academic struggles by embracing the role of “class clown”. At the end of every class, he would knock over each one of my blue chairs before exiting my classroom. For reasons unbeknownst to me, he seemed to love the sound of me fussing at him. Although he did come back to pick them up and push them neatly under my trapezoid shaped tables, he didn’t do so until I screamed his name as he ran down the hallway laughing hysterically. This was the nature of our relationship. He even continued this behavior during his sophomore year when he’d stop by my classroom just to say hello.
Another customer, observing the encounter between Emmanuel and me that day at Dairy Queen, asked me: “You taught this young man?” I responded, “Yes ma’am, I did. I taught him his freshmen year. I was his English language arts teacher.” She said, “You must have been an amazing teacher, because I have never seen a student so happy to see a teacher in my entire life.” I smiled.
As I relived the moment with those pre-service teachers, I realized that Emmanuel encapsulates why we become teachers. He also encapsulates why we stay. Emmanuel represents what so many of us experience over the course of our teaching careers:
- Simile: Like the blue chairs in my classroom, teachers, daily endeavor to provide support as their students engage in learning.
- Metaphor: The Emmanuel’s in education present challenges or obstacles that oftentimes leave us floored.
- Theme: However, our resiliency and passion will not allow us to succumb to the temptation to walk away. Instead, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and prepare for the next group of students, masking our tears, frustration, and exhaustion with a smile.
Teachers are the unsung heroes cloaked in obscurity. You effortlessly save lives with little to no appreciation. There are no parades, confetti, or news coverage about your last minute heroics with seconds left on the game clock. You most likely will never receive a multi-million dollar contract for what you do for our children, families, and communities. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to say those two little words rarely heard, “THANK YOU!”
Olivia Gillespie is the Reading, Writing, and Communicating Content Specialist in the Office of Standards and Instructional Support at the Colorado Department of Education. She is a former high school administrator and English language arts teacher. She is currently a doctoral candidate, pursuing her Doctor of Education (Ed.D) Leadership with a concentration in Executive Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a mother, pastor, entrepreneur, and avid sports fan.