For the New Year: A Reminder Why I Teach (1-2-12)

As we begin a new calendar year, which never seems like as big an event as starting a new school year, I want to write a reminder to myself about why I teach. If it reminds you, too, then that’s a bonus. Just before winter break, which ends to tomorrow, I had an experience I’d planned on writing about here, but I didn’t make the time to sit and actually write about it before Christmas arrived.

The experience came in two parts. 

Part 1: I had a rather hectic last with students the last day before break, one that included a student arguing with me about whether part of his essay was plagiarized, and lots of students being too rowdy and making a mess. It wasn’t all bad– it was just one of those days of teaching that left a bad taste in my mouth. If you’ve ever taught, you know about those days. You come home wondering why exactly it is why you teach. This can be especially discouraging right before a break– especially Winter Break. 

Part 2: To make things worse, I had set myself up to have a lot of grading to do that night. Friday was a planning day, and grades were due at the end of it. I wanted to clean up my classroom a bit, and do some planning, so it was important to me that I go into school the next day armed with all my essays graded. This meant a good two or three hour marathon of grading, which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.

The essays I had to grade were from both 7th and 8th grade. My seventh-graders had written expository “Enthusiasm Essays” about some activity they loved. My 8th graders had a few late “Education Essays” about an educational issue coming in, as well as their “This I Believe” essays of personal philosophy. 

I sat in my big leather recliner, pulled out my pack of colored pens (I recommend the Uniball Signo click-top pens– they are terrific), and opened the first folder. My seventh graders had written with harnessed enthusiasm, articulately conveying their enthusiasms with words. They wrote about creating music on various instruments, or with their own voices. They wrote about creating art, and about playing a favorite sport. They wrote about reading for the sheer pleasure of it, and wanting to find a job some day that would enable them to read. They wrote with such detail, such passion, that they made their enthusiasms tangible. I told them that I wanted to feel the heat of their enthusiasm radiating from the page– and for the most part, they did just that. I was starting to warm up.

And then I moved on to my eight-graders This I Believe essays. They wrote about faith. They wrote about doubt. They wrote about their lives, for the most part with eloquence, insight, and thoughtfulness. I knew there were several essays I would want my students to submit to the This I Believe website. When I opened the last essays I had to read, the late-work Education Essays, I read and enjoyed them, but one of them stood out. Sara wrote about letting students bring themselves and their own personal interests into class, rather than trying to standardize everyone. She wrote with such maturity, command of language, and quirky voice that I realized she sounded just like a real columnist. 

That’s what my goal is all along– to get my student writers to the point that they transcend rubrics, and writing scores, and hit that place where they no longer sound like student writers, or even excellent student writers, but like Writers. Period. 

Of course, I realized that when I go back to school in January, I’d have to send her piece to one of the local newspapers. 

I closed the folders, threw my Uniball pens in their bag, and got ready to input the grades on the computer. As I did so, I glanced up at the clock: nearly three hours had passed, but I had been so immersed, so completely swept away by my students’ writing, that it seemed no time had passed at all. 

And I realized that  my kind-of-lousy last day before break had been redeemed. Those papers were the tangible evidence of why I teach: to see my students developing interests, enthusiasms, beliefs, and voices of their own. Not to fill a bucket, but to light a fire. 

Happy New Year.