Making split second decisions, fielding rapid-fire questions, continual multi-tasking, acute awareness of your surroundings at all times - A description of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? Perhaps the boardroom of a multi-national corporation? How about the emergency room of a large metropolitan hospital? No, actually I am describing a typical day in my sixth grade classroom. Throw in the potential for snow, or a beautiful spring day and you can magnify these activities exponentially!
Those of us in public education understand the often all-consuming job of teaching. Now in my thirty-first year, you would think I have it down to a science, (even though I currently teach U.S. History!) Far from it! Each year has brought new challenges, and not just in the form of new students. I have been here long enough to witness the swing of the proverbial pendulum from a “middle school” philosophy that emphasized teaching through interdisciplinary, thematic units, allowing for flexible schedules, project based evaluations, cooperative learning, and team teaching, for example, to what I would call a “junior high school” model of rigid schedules with multiple class changes per day, departmentalized teachers, and high stakes evaluations.
In thirty-one years, I have also witnessed an explosion in technology, none of which was in use when I was training to become a teacher. Another significant change has been the increase in the diversity of our community’s population. Addressing the needs of students whose first language may not have been English and whose parents may not speak any English has been an ongoing challenge for our school system.
I didn’t expect teaching to be easy! About 120 students pass through my doors each day. I am one stop in their seven period school day. No matter how much energy I give to planning, preparing the classroom environment, interacting with the students during the hour they spend in my room, I never feel as if I have given them all that they need. And that can leave me feeling rather drained and discouraged. There are daily frustrations and challenges, some of which I can control and some that I can’t; yet, I have never thought of leaving education for another profession. So what does sustain me and what has sustained me for thirty plus years? I can say without hesitation that I have been fortunate enough to work with creative, energetic colleagues who have inspired me, challenged me, encouraged me and pulled me along. A positive work environment helps sustain us in any profession, but like many in the business of working with children, I am most strongly sustained by the children themselves.
It’s not rocket science that those of us who have been called to the noble profession of teaching must believe that we can do something to positively affect a child’s life, but even after all my years of experience I am still skeptical that the little I have to offer a student in 180 days could have that much impact. So, what sustains me the most are the small surprising moments that leave me feeling humbled and inspired. I think of these humbling moments as glimpses of realization that working with children goes much deeper than getting them to pass a test. Every once in awhile I get a glimpse into a child’s world and sometimes, if I’m lucky, the realization that I have and am somehow a part of that world. So the stories that follow are just some examples of how I have been humbled by students, moments that have touched me in a way that is sustaining.
I help sponsor an after school Ecology Club with my husband, a sixth grade science teacher. We collect recycling for the whole school and attempt to educate the student body about environmental issues. We have also raised money for projects that promote environmentally sound methods of improving the lives of people living in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves. There are Monday afternoons when I would just like to work alone in my quiet classroom. How do these kids have so much energy after a full day of school? But I am usually glad that I have spent time with this small group in a non-academic setting. Our club is open to all grades and all ability levels. Some members are fifth graders who are experiencing middle school for the first time. We have students who are in advanced classes and students who need extra support from resource classes. We are especially lucky to have a few seventh and eighth grade members who have been with us multiple years. I am always amazed by our older club members, who take on a leadership role by guiding the younger members, generating ideas, and just being good role models. If we need something done, these students practically have it done before we can explain! I do not take credit for teaching these skills, but I am gratified that I am able to help provide a forum for their leadership skills to grow. And I am inspired by the leadership qualities of students whose contributions to our world will go so far beyond their participation in Ecology Club.
Sponsoring an after school club is a refreshing venue for interacting with students, but of course, the majority of my time is spent in the classroom, teaching a state mandated curriculum. High stakes tests have dominated education long enough now that my current students have not known anything else. I am frustrated by how much pressure students and teachers feel to meet a standard. And I know the students get really tired of the constant push to get ready for a test. Many appear to be apathetic about the tests, homework, about school in general, but one student reminded me this year how much he and probably most really do care. Our school is now giving benchmark tests three times per year, in addition to spring SOL (Standard of Learning) tests. Because the tests are online, the students can see their scores immediately. I ask the students to raise their hands when they are ready to “submit” their tests so we can see their scores together. I like to be able to offer congratulations or words of encouragement. Many students show their anxiety by closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, etc. before submitting. And then there was Alan.
Alan is a very polite and cooperative young man. He works hard in class and he eagerly raises his hand to answer questions. The problem is that often his answers are just a little off target. It breaks my heart to tell him, “Not quite, but . . .” So, imagine my surprise when he scored a 100% on the first benchmark test of the year. I am ashamed to admit that my first thought was, “Could he have cheated?” I really didn’t think so since the test questions are randomized. I gave him my quiet congratulations in the computer lab while he grinned. But what came after we returned to the classroom is something I will hold onto. It was so spontaneous and genuine. When I offered him a more enthusiastic congratulations, he beamed and gave me a big hug. I could have cried! Alan’s response will improve my own perspective of how kids feel about being evaluated. Of course they want to do well and receive good scores, but because of Alan, I will humbly remember that kids really do care deeply.
I work with students of mixed abilities in each of my classes. This is a challenge that I feel I meet only adequately well. I am never satisfied that I have equally challenged my advanced students while helping those who struggle to successfully learn the same material. Alan reminds me how important achievement is to students, but Melissa reminds me how important a positive attitude and the ability to persevere is for success. Melissa reads well below grade level and receives speech services. At the beginning of the school year, she came to me, smiling shyly and asked, “Can I talk to you?” She proceeded to ask me if she would ever have to read out loud in class. I assured her that we didn’t do that very often in my class and if we did, I would not force any student to read out loud. As I didn’t really know Melissa very well yet, I didn’t know if she was going to be a student who just avoided participating or if there was true fear. As I’ve gotten to know her, she has become one of those students who inspires me to try a little harder. Despite her weaknesses, this is a girl who comes in smiling every day, easily holds a conversation with me and is always ready to work. Contrary to my initial concern that she might be looking for a way to avoid work, Melissa asks for help when she needs it, and then she applies that help to the task at hand. She has never looked discouraged, even when she doesn’t do well on a test. What teacher wouldn’t welcome a classroom full of students like Melissa? She is a “struggling reader,” but more than that she is a young lady who has so many valuable life skills. As her teacher, I am humbled by Melissa, a student who has not let her own weaknesses dictate the kind of person she is.
Occasionally, as teachers, we are given a belated gift that allows us knowledge of our impact. A few years ago I was asked if I would accept a high school senior who was interested in a teaching career to spend one period in my classroom every other day. The placement was part of a mentorship program open to seniors at our local high school. While I have worked with numerous college student teachers, I was a little hesitant because I had never been responsible for mentoring a high school student, but the young woman had been a very successful former sixth grade student of mine, so I agreed. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by Anne’s ability to not only help students when I asked, but to really understand what students needed. She exhibited great poise and initiative for a high school student. Again, these were not qualities I taught her, but I felt very fortunate to have her in my classroom on those days. Anne is now in college, preparing to be a history teacher. I have happily written recommendations for her and am humbled to think that I played a small part in her career choice.
Anne is one example of a former student whose path I’ve later had the fortune to cross, but I will close with one additional small encounter that had a big humbling impact. My husband and I were attending a local art showing when I crossed paths with Ellen, who was helping with the show. Now in her twenties, I hadn’t seen Ellen since she was in middle school. She had been my student when I taught sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies. Ellen was one of those memorable students simply because she was such a great student in so many ways. She worked hard, had a positive attitude, and great organizational skills – she had all the qualities for success. In addition, she was very bright, the daughter of two professors with a great family and all kinds of support and experiences. She was one of those students a teacher can’t help enjoying, but for me, at least, one of those students for whom I never quite felt I did enough. How could I challenge this model student who came to me with so many skills? Imagine my shock when Ellen told me at that art show that I was the best Language Arts teacher she ever had! What? After a highly successful high school career and four years at a prestigious college, she told me I was the best? I guess she could have said that to be nice, but she explained that I helped her so much with writing and really laid the foundation for her future success. How humbling to receive such praise from such a high- powered student. With the current trend of our legislative leaders promoting their philosophy of tying teacher evaluation to test scores, how wonderfully refreshing to receive an authentic assessment from a former student.
Teaching is hard work. If we are honest with ourselves, as professionals, we don’t go home every day feeling we have saved the world, much less individual children, but what has sustained me for 31 years are the moments that leave me humbled by my students. Moments that on the surface are fleeting and maybe seem insignificant, but as a collection, give me something to hold onto. Moments that remind me that what all children need hasn’t changed that much regardless of the pendulum’s swing or what language they speak at home. Moments that remind me I do have an impact. Who wouldn’t be sustained by that?
Mary DeVier-Scott is a sixth grade United States history teacher in the Harrisonburg City Schools. In her 31 year career, she has taught language arts, history, health and even math. She currently teaches at Thomas Harrison Middle School, right next door to her husband, a sixth grade science teacher. She has three children, one son-in-law, and a senior citizen cat. She resides in Rockingham County where she has a beautiful view of the mountains.