Sunday, May 10, 2015

They Matter Too

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. Appreciation isn't something teachers feel all the time, so it's nice to have a week cut out to recognize all that we do. As I thanked a handful of my students for the beautiful flowers and yummy tea they brought me to show their appreciation, I found myself reflecting on the teachers I had growing up. It seems to me that most people can identify one or two teachers who really made a difference in their lives. For most people, there was that one teacher who cared more, pushed more, and worked harder to change their lives. I went through most of my formal education without one. (There was one who was close. He probably could have been "that teacher" if we had actually built a relationship. That's all below though. :) )

I realize that statement sounds weepy and mopey and sad. That's not at all my intention. Rather I want to raise awareness for students who are like me in the hopes that some teacher will recognize them and be "that one teacher" for them. 

First, let me tell you a little about me as a grade-school student. I was the quiet girl. I wasn't gifted, creative, funny, or witty. I also wasn't attention-seeking, angry, loud, or (for lack of a better term) low. I just existed. I did what I needed to do, although I didn't typically put too much extra effort into it. It didn't seem to matter if I put extra effort into it; no one would have noticed. I just got by. I had a few friends. I came to school everyday. I didn't need much, so I didn't get much. I never felt like my teachers really saw me. 

By the time I got to middle school, the results of being completely vanilla were taking their  toll. Because no one had recognized anything special in me, I didn't believe there was anything special about me. In seventh grade, I think my science teacher saw something. He chose me to be a part of the science club that got to dissect pigs. I was pretty excited about this. After all, my brother, who everyone knew was among the brightest in his class, didn't even do this. When the day finally came for the club to meet for the first time, I was so stinkin' nervous I didn't know what to do. I think I asked my science teacher to clarify exactly where I would be going and when about a million times. I struggled to accept the fact that I was actually going to be a part of that opportunity. Someone had seen something in me and I thought he was wrong. No way I was "good enough" to do this. 

That same science teacher recognized me again later in the year when we did a project on landscaping. After completing the project, he chose mine as an example to send to the University of Northern Iowa where a class was doing something similar. Once again, I was completely surprised. He chose my project? Does he know that it belonged to me? Is he sure he wants to send that one? If he had taken the time to really get to know me - to really build a relationship with me and show me he cared - he could have been "that teacher" for me.

I wish I could say that was a turning point for me - that suddenly I saw the "special" in me and took off. That's not what happened though.

It took me years to realize that I was capable of achieving good grades. As a freshman in high school, I just decided that I was going to get As. My brother was doing that, so I was going to too. It wasn't because I had been nurtured to believe I could do it; it was just because I decided to make it so. I laugh when I think of my ITED scores in high school. (After all, standardized tests are what make a student a student, right...) During my junior year, my school bribed us with a day off if we could do one of two things: score in the 90th percentile or raise our score by 10%. I did both. I didn't suddenly become a better test taker or have more knowledge than I did the years before. I simply didn't want to be left behind by my smart friends who would undoubtedly get the day off. Imagine what I could have done if someone had really taken the time to see my potential. 

I still struggle with confidence to this day. I constantly second-guess myself. When I fall, I fall hard. Luckily, in my adult life, I have crossed paths with an encouraging college professor and a fantastic principal. They have pushed me in ways I couldn't have pushed myself, and it has made a world of difference. I am better because of them. Would my life be different if I had had them in my life when I was in elementary school?

As I think about my current group of first graders, I know I have students just like me in my class. My hope is that in some way I have made the effort to help them feel seen. I hope I have given them a burst of confidence to get them through some rough spots. I hope they don't have to rely on themselves to get down the road ahead. I know I cannot expect perfection from myself, and I know I will make mistakes. Those kids - those quiet, problem-free kids - deserve to be seen though. They matter too. It's my job to make sure they know that.

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