“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
This was the thought that dominated my consciousness as I walked into my new classroom for the first time. The empty walls and empty desks were a fitting metaphor for my empty brain. I was a brand-new teacher entering the profession mid-year in an academically deficient school that was very culturally different from anywhere I had lived or worked before. There would be students walking through the door in mere moments, and I had nothing for them except a few icebreaker activities and the pre-made lesson plans that my instructional coach had put together for me.
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
This was the thought that dominated my consciousness as I sat at my desk on the last day of school. After 19 weeks of straining, striving, and sweating the small stuff in an effort to teach my students something, I honestly felt like a complete failure. The final project that I had given them for the last month of school fell completely flat. It seemed like most of the kids were apathetic toward me and toward the material. Meanwhile, I found out that two of my mentors and allies were leaving after this school year. I was exhausted, discouraged, and ready to just be done and go on summer break.
How’s that for an encouraging survey of my first semester of teaching? (Insert laughing emoji)
In all seriousness, this semester was hard. It stretched and challenged me in ways that nothing (including 12 years in local church ministry) ever had. In student ministry, where I had served for the previous 4.5 years before transitioning to teaching, I saw students twice a week for a grand total of three hours, plus any extracurricular activities or special church events. I saw them mostly at their dressed-up church best and only occasionally at their authentic normal. Now, I was seeing students every other day for 90-minute periods, and I saw them mostly at their authentic, day-to-day normal and sometimes at their worst.
The irony of the previous paragraph is that a little over a year ago, I wrote a blog for Victorious Educators in which I discussed how much I envied (in the best way possible) this kind of present-ness with students. In fact, I encouraged teachers to take advantage of it. I thought I had some idea of how difficult it is to show up day in and day out and try to faithfully love and serve kids who may not care while staying under fire from parents, administrators, the state, and the media and while balancing family life and trying to find time for some sort of self-care. I thought I knew what it took to do this job.
I had no idea, but now I think I do.
Here in the safe confines of summer break, I can look back and reflect on the things that this semester taught me, and I am grateful to be able to share five insights with you.
1. Showing up is the win.
Rarely a day went by this semester when I felt like I accomplished what I set out to do, and there never seemed to be enough time in any given class period. Most days felt like the proverbial dumpster fire rolling down the street with me chasing it. However, I learned that the thing my students were looking for more than anything else was not my ability to teach them the RACES writing strategy or how to eliminate comma splices. They didn’t care if I looked put together or even if I sounded like I knew what I was talking about all the time.
Over and over students would tell me, “Mr. Dennis, we really thought you were going to leave after one week, but you didn’t. That’s pretty cool.” You see, I teach in a place where 95% of the students have been abandoned by one or more of the adults in their life. The fact that I showed up every single day for them, chased them down for their homework, asked how their weekend was, and cared about what happened to them made the biggest impact on my relationship with them.
2. Mistakes are where the magic happens.
I am, by nature, a perfectionist. I like to do things with excellence, and I generally avoid doing things that I cannot be excellent (perfect) at. The thing about teaching (especially if you have never done it before) is that you can’t do it perfectly. I would routinely fumble over my words, lose track of where the lesson was headed, or just say things that were downright incorrect and have to apologize and correct myself. This was a mortifying and borderline paralyzing daily reality for me. I do not like to look incompetent or foolish.
However, I have learned more by making hundreds of mistakes this semester than I did in years of playing it safe and doing what I was good at. Every time an activity flopped, I figured out a way to make it better. Every time a kid looked at me with that blank, glassy-eyed stare because they had no idea what I was talking about, it forced me to be creative in how I helped them think about the problem. Every misstep was an opportunity to grow and become a better teacher, and I think I did that. Now, I will have to read back over this section on the first day of school to remind myself of these things, but for now, they ring true.
3. Relationship trumps talent 100% of the time.
From day one I was very honest with my students. I told them I was here because I was passionate about two things: seeing them become the people they were made to be and (to a much lesser degree) the content of the course. I tried to get them to see that the subject matters, the test matters, and their grades matter. But what matters way more than these is how students grow and develop as people. That, I told them, is why I’m here.
I tried my best to learn their language (with some exceptions), to understand their perspectives, and to know at least one thing about each student that was meaningful to him or her. I have not seen our STAAR results yet, but whatever the data says, the progress that I saw in my students academically over the course of the semester was remarkable. This was not because I’m a fantastic teacher (see the previous section). It’s because they realized at some point that they could trust me and that I loved them. When you know that about a person, it is a lot easier to put in the work.
4. Our expectations are way too low.
Between 80-90% of the kids in my school live in poverty. Most of their parents did not go to college, and many did not finish high school. They have very few models for what it looks like to move beyond a life of drugs, crime, mental illness, and violence. They are generally addicted to their phones and have great difficulty navigating basic social/emotional situations. By all accounts, many of them are the poster children for the dominant cultural narrative of the “lazy, entitled snowflakes who only care about TikTok and that will one day ruin this country.” I’m sorry, but I just don’t see that.
I see kids who show up every day, some after having worked the late shift at work and/or taken care of their younger siblings, and put in the work to succeed. I see college graduates and lawyers and engineers and artists and social workers and mechanics and moms and dads. I see intelligence, creativity, innovation, and an unwillingness to remain in the status quo. I see a generation that wants to move past the inflammatory rhetoric and political divisiveness that have characterized the last two decades and actually work toward meaningful solutions to things like poverty, civil rights, and gun violence. The potential is there for all these things, but our students will never reach it if we continue to set the bar low out of the fear that they can’t reach any higher. I assure you that they can.
5. It is worth it!
“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:9 NLT)
It is so easy when we are tired, burnt out, or discouraged to give into cynicism, hopelessness, and the voices that tell us that what we do doesn’t make a difference. My friends, good work always makes a difference. We may never see the results of our labor, but as long as we faithfully plow the ground, plant the seed, and water regularly, we are right where God wants us to be. Don’t give up. The harvest is coming.