The boy slept on the desk. I woke him again. I wasn’t that boring. Maybe I was–am I qualified to make that determination? That was a minute of his life he would never get back. I asked him after class.

“Was I that boring?”

“No, Miss, I had to work.” He worked in his family business–a restaurant–until one or two o’clock in the morning most nights outside of soccer season.  We agreed that he would do his classwork on weekends.

Another girl was failing. She was absent all the time. She never came after school to make up her work. “Redo that test with me,” I said.

“I can’t stay after school. I’m not allowed.” She had to babysit. Her mom worked multiple shifts. Food and rent were important. We got up early and met in the mornings. Some days she stayed home. She emailed me. I sent her work.

Another boy disappeared for months at time. His family moved for work–migrants. I gave him an assignment to be done on the road, not really sure if he’d return.

Still another paid the rent for his whole family–as a sophomore. The parents couldn’t. He was told, “You can’t work that much. It’s now allowed.” Sometimes life doesn’t give us nice  choices. I bet he learned more about life than if he learned my questions one through three.

I have had emancipated students, young parents, students shouldering the family finances, students who were undocumented and hiding. One student couldn’t go back to see his mom before she died of cancer in their country–months before graduation. Another was the caretaker for her terminally ill mother. She put off college for her family. One year, I gave my September Survey, “What do you do for fun?” A freshman girl answered, “Not much–I play with my son.”

It’s easy to be judgmental–to look at the problems students face as they strive to make it through high school and into the world. Honestly, we all have problems, kid. Someday your boss will fire you if you don’t get the work done. But I’m here to help. Not to cram my material down your throat, because truth is–standards be damned–that might not be the biggest mountain you climb today. Just getting to the sunset might be the goal.

What’s the right approach? How can I serve you?

How can I make sure that even though you have nearly insurmountable issues,  you understand you can control the outcome? We all face mountains in our own way. You determine what you need to be successful and you make it happen with your grit and tenacity. You use these insurmountable issues to make yourself a better person; a better adult. Sometimes they become a blessing, a benefit to you in the future rather than something that kept you down. Realize that you have the skills, the dedication, and the desire to succeed. How can I give you that guarantee?

Judgmentalism. “She can’t stay home to translate.” “It’s illegal for him work that late.” “Going to your country for vacation for three weeks at Christmas is not an excused absence.” “How can they have kids so young?”

Families often fight to survive. Somewhere in between, that kid tries to do your math, my critical questions, and read a text that doesn’t seem to apply to his crisis. Sometimes they do it just because they like me. Then it’s up to me to provide the justification. The value.  In the midst of all this chaos–where each day crumbles into a survival mechanism in the outside world…I teach that education is the only lifelong friend–that no matter where you are,  education makes you better, equalizes the playing field. Education is not just the stuff in the books. The desire to learn more and the curiosity to refuse to let the flame extinguish is the single factor that gets you ahead.

Education must be flexible, personalized, and human–I say this even as I watch class plan after class plan be filled with standardized tests, post tests, high-stakes tests and entire credit classes that prepare students for tests.

Each student who comes through my door again and again is a hero. Especially the ones facing challenges so big they’d cripple adults. Yet they come, and they bring it every day, and they smile.  Someday soon, they will be great–no, they already are. Someday soon, they will be monumental. The biggest success. More successful than me.

That…is why…I teach.


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