In my last blog post, Part I, I shared student thoughts and sentiments that they produced in a letter-writing activity for a high school course I teach called Exploring Teaching As A Profession. Students wrote these letters in response to a prompt with the same title as this blog, “I Wish My Teachers Knew,” and while the letters do contain some positive thoughts and critiques, the assignment title and context tend to elicit the darker side of my students’ psyches. Thus, the letters are often pleas for understanding, requests for compassion, and expressions of their insecure and fragile hearts. Read together they can seem overwhelming, as though we educators are going about our work all wrong in the most important ways. They can feel like the pathway to improved student experience is daunting, a gauntlet riddled with triggers for childhood and teen trauma, bullying, emotional and fiscal poverty, and generalized, typical – albeit painful – insecurities.
Nevertheless, I always appreciate the learning I experience in reading these missives. They give me motivation to continue to do the hard work of connecting with my students as complex people with complex lives.
In contrast, for a different assignment students produce written evidence of positive experiences with school and with teachers. This assignment, which – interestingly – precedes the letter writing described above, students are create a visual graphic that represents their “teaching family tree.” For that, students need to think about all the forces that have somehow played a role in their decision to take this course, contemplating a career as an educator in some way.
In preparation, we talk about how all the people and experiences of our lives shape who we want to be and how we want to be. Students can design their own graphic, and while my handout has a visual of a family tree, the visual doesn’t have to be in that form; thus, they have been known to create webs, timelines, staircases, flow-charts, too.
On these graphics they write the names of the people / places / events, and a short blurb about how they were inspired by each. Reading these graphics is as much an education for me as the “I Wish My Teachers Knew” letters, in that they represent what all educators should aspire to be. And, just as I said in Part I of this series, I bet these could have been written by your students. So soak up some of the good you and your colleagues are doing, to balance out the areas we can all improve in. Read on! Here are un-edited excerpts:
“My 1st grade teacher was super nice and made school fun.”
“In 7th grade Mrs. R related everything we learned to real life, which led to better understanding.”
“Mrs. D helped me alot and made me think about teaching.”
“Mr. L jumping on desks and screaming makes class exciting enough to come back to.”
“Mrs. D was my 4th grade teacher. She inspired me very heavily to become a teacher because she was so caring and helpful to me. She even came to one of my gymnastics competitions and cheered me on. She helped me grow, learn, and prosper and she loved each and everyone of her students so much. She was my first teacher that inspired me to want to be a teacher.”
“She made me feel free to be open-minded.”
“Mr. B inspired me to be a teacher. [He] was able to connect to my learning ability, and laid back.”
“Mr. C helped teach me in an engaging and inspirational way that made me want to learn. If I wanted to be a teacher, I’d be a history teacher and use [Mr. C] as a role model.”
“Words can’t discribe how amazing and inspirational the human being that he is”
“Mrs. C taught me how to be a better student and person, as well as work on perfecting my writing”
“Coach D taught me I am stronger than I think, and can access my dreams with effort and hard work”
“Ms. F never judged me for not being able to do something as fast as the other students and always believed in me and my abilities.”
“Mrs. R formed a strong union with the class.”
“Mr. T made me a teacher assistant in his class.”
“Mrs. A helped me pass my failed global 10 Regents, if it weren’t for her I might not graduate”
“[Mr. B, H, T, F} Gym coaches that make me enjoy gym and make me want to be coaches”
“Mrs. G helped me fall in love with watching children evolve over time and seeing the part I have in that through teaching.”
“Mr. O is a super understanding and caring teacher”
“Mrs. R challenges me in yearbook and believes I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.”
“Mrs. V always played music and was a really sweet lady.”
“Mrs. B – freedom & respect / being treated like a responsible adult brings confidence to my work”
“Mrs. P incouraged me to go for my dreams”
I share these with the teachers named on them when I can, and on more than one occasion I have been told, “Wow. I never knew. That’s amazing!” and “Thank you so much – you have no idea how much that means to me and how much I needed that today.”
I’m always most struck by the times teachers indicate that they needed to hear that today; it reminds me that this work is emotionally and psychologically taxing regularly.
Thus, these teachers’ comments tell me we educators don’t hear often enough how we’re doing – what we’re doing well, what we can improve upon, and what our students are getting from their experiences with us. This is not to say our job is to keep students happy every moment. Many former students of mine would likely report something different in the moment than they would in summation. I’m okay with that when they understand I care about their development as well as their happiness.
I hope you find inspiration in these excerpts for being your best teaching self – and for making it to someone’s “teaching family tree.” Likely, you already have. May this post then be a reminder of the good work you are already doing. Your students thank you.
Michelle G. Bulla is a high school English teacher and the 9-12 department chair at Monroe-Woodbury High School in southern Orange County, NY. She’s also a Teacher Consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, and a member of the Executive Board for NYSEC where she serves in several capacities. She’d love nothing more than to continue this conversation with you as her favorite topic is her hashtag, #TeachersWhoEvolve.