“If you’ll excuse me, I have to go home and make up some grades.” I worshiped the teacher having coffee with me. Jesus sat to her one side while the devil rested at mine. She was perfect–inspiring, funny, organized. I wished I could be her.
“Oh, everyone loses stuff this far into the year. I’m going to make up the rest of the grades so it looks like my gradebook’s neat. I know what my kids did.” Suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an incompetent teacher.
I remember the first year I taught, before I realized I had any discretion over such things as rounding a 69 to a 70. “Miss, I need to pass your class,” one kid said at the end of June. I’d been saying it since September, a blind prophet wandering in the desert.
“You needed to have paid attention instead of sitting behind the cabinet licking Sour Patch Kids.” I invited him to come after school. That boy sat, and sat, scratching pencil to paper while I graded each one, plugging it into the gradebook like a game show finale. “Still not there. It’s a 65.2.” Students only needed 65 back then. We weren’t so worried about competing with China or Finland in those days. I made him earn every last tenth of that grade over the course of several days.
Yet here was someone saying, “I know my students,” implying grades didn’t matter as much as performance, passion, and potential. It’s difficult to look a kid in the eye and say, “You’re an 85,” or “You look more like a 88 to me.” or even worse, “You won’t succeed without passing my class.” That’s all teacher ego. Often it’s not the kid with the grades who wins the race so much as the kid who sneaks up from behind and passes everyone.
That’s a deep, dark secret.
Years later, the Kid Behind the Filing Cabinet said my helping him pass kept him from dropping out. It was the first of a series of successes replacing the usual chain of events that brings students to failure. I was humbled. Lesson learned. Despite the red tape and insanity, the little things we say and do for students matter, long-term. I hope I didn’t accidentally ruin anyone’s life. If so, I apologize. Let me buy you some coffee.
I think of the things people have said to me that changed the course of my life–things they never knew put me on the road to great. I wonder which things I say in passing help a student conquer the world. It’s an awesome power.
I’ve learned what I teach doesn’t matter. I could teach anything. My lesson won’t necessarily make or break a kid. It’s the relationship I build, the way I show each student to use their talents to build a foundation for success, especially students whose gifts aren’t traditionally lauded by schools.
“Why are you telling me how awesome I am?” one kid asked. “I’m failing five subjects.”
“You’re failing five subjects because you aren’t motivated and hate school. I can’t cure lazy, but I can tell you are analytical, mathematical, and a genius. You could be an engineer. Solve problems. Build companies…Do something you like with your genius…make a million.” I had these “conferences” with students yesterday while I corrected exams in front of them like magic, “Pen of Enlightenment” and “Pen of Doom” in my hand. It’s really the same pen, it’s all in the theatrics.
“Pen of Doom says you got crushed here… maybe a little more research?” I do this so I can spend one last second with each student as he or she leaves my class. I thank them for choosing my class. It’s an “elective” they didn’t elect.
“I didn’t pick you, Miss.”
“But you showed up every day. And you were amazing…” I tell them I hope they hate social studies a little bit less now. They say they do, and some say they now realize they can change the world.
That was my goal this year–showing them their power. Maybe we can’t change the world, but when we kick down the first domino, the rest seems to fall in the right place just fine. I wanted them to leave knowing they had powers I never had growing up in an age before technology. That means they also have responsibilities. I hope they do something good. The power to take action is worth more than a thousand of the old note sheets and dittos I assigned when I started teaching.
“I want to take your class again.”
I tell them I never know what I’m teaching until right before school starts, but whatever it is, I hope to see them there. Otherwise, I’ll be in the same old room 222 expecting to hear about their greatness.
And so another year ends with a smile, and hopefully, a few good grades as well.