Why we do what we do

The end of the school year always seems to be a time of reflection for me. This year is unique since I've been out of school for the last 11 weeks on my maternity leave.  However, after visiting my students and colleagues during the 8th grade awards ceremony this week, I couldn't help but be reminded of the excitement, anticipation, exhaustion, and sadness that come along with the winding down of another year.

As I scanned the auditorium, I could sense the excitement as students embraced the week's activities: awards, yearbook signing, field day, movies, "fun" classes.  This feeling was balanced with a sense of nervous anticipation of the unknowns associated with leaving the comfort of being the "top dogs" and heading off to begin their journey as freshmen in high school. 

For the teachers, this is a time of relief as well as sadness.  Have you ever paused to notice the difference between the appearance of teachers from September to June?  Drastic.  The summer is certainly a time for much needed rest and rejuvenation after the grueling pace of the previous months.  Of course, there's always that twinge of sadness knowing that we are saying goodbye to another group of students.  (Give it three months and we'll be referring to them as a wonderful group of students.)

Inherited after a colleague and friend transferred to teacher at the high school, 'Letter to a Teacher' is an activity that I close with every year.  I was so glad to hear that another coworker of mine continued the tradition while I was away on leave.  During this activity, students are asked to write a letter thanking a teacher who has made a difference in their life at some point over the past three years of middle school.  Students take this task very seriously and write very thoughtful letters.

The letters are then distributed to teachers via their mailbox before the last day of school.  During this time of stress, exhaustion, and frustration, teachers receive the kind of words of students.  There is no better pick-me-up and no better reminder of why we do what we do.  These letters have the power to put everything back into perspective as students share their innermost thoughts and express sincere gratitude.  Many times the letters come from students who I would never expect.

A letter from one student in particular still stands out to me.  My first year of teaching I received the most surprising, wonderful, heartfelt letter - from one of those unexpected students.  Five years later I cannot remember the exact contents of the letter but I absolutely remember how it made me feel.  The letter was from one of my struggling learners.  He was disorganized, failed to complete homework, and rarely participated in class.  However, he chose to write to me.  In his letter, he thanked me for never giving up on him - for pushing him every step of the way.  He expressed his sincere gratitude for making him stay after school so we could do homework together and review new concepts from class.  He told me I made a big difference in his life because he knew I believed in him.  

As I sat at my desk in my empty classroom reading the letter, I found myself crying.  Stunned.  There has never been a better reminder about why I teach.  

Did he magically begin to love math?  Or suddenly develop an effective organization system?  Or master all of the eighth grade standards?  No, not in a big fairy tale way.  We sure did work at it... together.  Will he remember how to calculate slope of a line or write linear equations given two points?  Who knows.  But what he will remember is how I made him feel.  How I believed in him.  How I encouraged him.  How I cared about him as a person.

Sometimes it's easy to lose perspective during the height of the school year.  Tests are given.  The pace is fast.  We're all tired.  But then the letters come at the end of the year and it all makes sense.  We instantly remember why we do what we do.

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