In a few weeks, our classrooms will be filled with nervous smiles and worried parents, all wondering what the new school year will bring. Some excited for their children to get started on a continued path of learning and growth, others a bit more worried. Sometimes we feel like it is our job to save each student, and the thought of maybe not reaching every single student affects us in more ways than one. The reality is that we can’t save every student in our classrooms in one single school year, but we can have great impact. Teachers are not superheroes, we are human.
As teachers, it is sometimes easy for us to dismiss the worries of a parent, becoming complacent to what’s important. We allow our every day “busy” take over who we should be for our students and families. Under the blanket of what feels like a thousand and one decisions and responsibilities we carry out each day, sometimes the start of a school year can feel like a category 6 hurricane, and it is easy to lose sight of why we became teachers. We sometimes forget the powerful impact we have on our students. We are not always careful with our words, our actions, and our purpose. This is a grave error.
Helping a child to learn and grow is probably one of the hardest jobs one human could have. And I don’t know about you, but I’m no superhero. Even though at times I feel like what happens in my classroom is magic, it’s not. Sometimes what I do can seem humanly impossible to accomplish, and it may look like the accomplishment of a superhero, but it is not. It is the daily responsibility of a teacher.
When parents come to me at the start of a school year, I work hard to make sure they know their child will be safe, taken care of, treated gently, and given the opportunity to thrive and grow. Parents, I could guess, want the best learning environment for their child. It is what I wanted as a parent.
I’m not sure if it’s due to the tragedy and loss in my own life, or because I’ve raised two sons to adulthood, but I completely understand the worry of a parent. This was my own worry, at the start of each school year. All that I wished for my sons was that they would be given a chance to learn in a positive environment, to experience being a part of a learning community, participate in discoveries without shame, unnecessary failure, or having failures pointed out to them as a part of their identities. I yearned for them to be accepted and welcomed into a learning environment every single day. Pulling my oldest from private school, into public school to begin 7th grade, I worried big time. I worried how he would be treated by other students; I worried about how he would be treated by his teachers.
Good Character Is an Expectation
In my process of learning to become a parent and a teacher, I quickly understood what I often shared with my class of last year… “the most important thing for us to have is good character… having straight A’s is good, but if I had to choose one, I’d rather my own kids have good character… to know that they are good humans above anything else means more to me than having straight A’s…” Our jails hold many bright, highly intelligent people, many having experienced great success in school at some point in their past. One thing missing from their repertoire of wins, good grades, and accomplishments seems to have been… good character.
If our students come to us with good character and can accomplish strong grades, well, our world would probably be a better place. I have had these students in my classroom, and it is a blast to watch them thrive and grow. But, if I had to choose one, I’d rather have a good human. “Be a good person” is a phrase I often used with my 4th grade students. It is an expectation I hold strong for my students each year, and an important part of building our ideal classroom community.
Consequences of Poor Character
Watching the news for just a few minutes can truly show us how the character of a person can impact our world. We have all heard the stories of young teens having thrown their new born baby in a trash bin, because maybe out of sight, out of mind, means freedom from responsibility. Or, the reports of young adults video-taping a fight, instead of calling for help, or the tragic stories of college students leaving a drunk friend to die after a fall, unfamiliar with making reasonable humane actions to help… much like a deer in headlights, they either stand disconnected, do nothing good, or make horrible choices.
It may be easier for us to say that maybe they were wired this way from the beginning; born this way, but that claim just doesn’t sound right. It is hard for me to believe that anyone could be born with that ability, prewired to commit such acts of inhumane actions or disconnect. Maybe somewhere along the line… their guides failed them, they failed, and then failure consumed their years like a black hole, making it impossible to escape. Failure is not a good thing, when we can’t look back and learn from it. Maybe, each adult who crossed their path, passed on the responsibility to the next, doing little to help or making it worse, and then letting go.
I think we all play a role, and yes, teachers… teachers are also a part of that “somewhere along the line” effect. We can and do have an opportunity to do more. Teachers don’t have to work harder, we simply need to remember that we are models of what we want our students to become, even if it seems our efforts go unnoticed. We are at times all they have, even if they do not approach us directly. Humans were not made to survive alone, yet that is exactly what many of our students are facing.
We need to teach children to perform well in life, not solely on tests. For our struggling, low-socio-economic students, we must keep the bar high, not drop it because we are blinded with the thought that maybe this student’s learning cannot or should not be pushed forward. These are the students that need us most to believe in them.
Our Generation-Z students have the world at their finger-tips now with every smart device at their disposal. They can learn whatever they choose, whenever they want. They need us now more than ever to help guide them. They need our wisdom and experience.
Impact Is No Superpower
Impact is no superpower, anyone can do it. Every human is capable of great impact. Teachers have more opportunity for impact than most people. The kind of impact we have depends on the choices we make for ourselves and for our students. If we look around our schools, we won’t see teachers wearing sagging pants, as a member of a gang, or flipping off another teacher down the hallway… well, that one may be for another post. However, if we look around at the adults in our schools, does what we see represent good character, honestly? I’m referring to us… parents, teachers, and experienced adults.
Are we models of what we expect of our students, our children? Do we speak ill of people, or are we kind? Are we gentle and honest, or harsh and direct? Are we respectful to all other humans around us, or can we care less about how we treat others? Do we practice patience, or do we blow up?
My 10th grade high school history teacher, who often cursed in the classroom, said to me once… “You’re just going to end up barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen somewhere.” Did that affect me? Ummm, yes? I mean, that was over 20 years ago, and I recall it as if it were yesterday. How it affected me is still in question. Maybe it pushed me, or maybe I simply pitied him. What confused me most was the fact that he thought it was okay to curse in the classroom. He often stated that “It’s not like you guys don’t hear these words anyway.” Well, now that I’ve had some time… a long time, to think about it, I don’t care if we did hear those curse words in the hallways of our high school. I expected more from the person leading the classroom. It was his job to be a good model. I expected my teacher to be a good person. He wasn’t.
I get it… I’ve heard it… “We’re not the parent, so now we have to raise them, in addition to teaching them?” No. We are not to raise our students. We are not their parents. What we are is an impact. We are obligated to lead them, guide them, and teach them to the best of our ability to make good decisions… obligated to show them how to be good humans. We can do this simply by modeling what we hope they will be in the future. And we will fail. We will fail many, because we are human, not magicians, superheroes, or other fantastic titles that attempt to describe what we do. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs on earth, in my opinion. Still, we are obligated to give students everything we can. We are professionals. This is what we do and who we are.
We will reach some. Those we do reach, may be impacted for a long, long time, if we’re lucky. We may live in their memories until they are old and grey, affecting them still. Our impact may even push them to pay it forward, impacting others, and making the world a better place. That’s my hope at least.
It’s funny how we naturally tend to remember the worst experiences though… I think that’s human too. However, our hearts are not made solely to keep negative experiences. I also remember the teachers who impacted my life in positive ways. These powerful impacts came from gentle teachers, giving their time, respect, and attention… unconditionally. Those teachers who step into a classroom, because for them, it is a calling. There are many more in my memories to pull strength from, than that of my 10th grade history teacher’s poor example of a human being. Some people are not worthy of the positions they hold.
Teaching Is a Calling
Teaching is a calling. It requires our lives, hearts, and souls. There’s just no way around that fact. I love what I do in the classroom. I wonder still if it is my calling. Sometimes I feel like a student alongside my own students, loving the learning and exploration as much as any other 9-year-old. Maybe not knowing for sure will help me to remain a life-long learner. What I do know is my purpose, and my purpose is to teach my students to love to read and write.
What I do each year is beyond challenging. I often reflect on my ability to reach my students. Building humans is a great responsibility, and difficult to accomplish. Humans require a lot more than the content we are obligated to teach each year. Reaching a student’s heart is not in our TEKS, but without it, we will have little life-long learning accomplished in our classrooms.
Our jobs require us to be superheroes, but we are only humans. So, I cut myself a break every now and then, when the hurricane calls on me to duck and cover, I do. I emerge again, each time, having learned to take a stronger grip than the time before.
The Impact of a Teacher
Teachers are not superheroes. We are, however, models of who we want our students to become… sometimes we are their only good models. It is not our job to raise the students in our classrooms, but it is our job to do what we were trained to do, to the best of our ability. We all have the ability to do great things, and even though we are not superheroes, the impact of a teacher can change a life. It did for me.
Impactful teachers are remembered, whether they are good or bad. We tend to forget the ones who made no impact at all. As we begin a new school year, we must hold tight our purpose, so we do not forget. We have great influence on the lives of each of our students, and with great influence, comes great responsibility.
Sometimes, our impact is so great, that for some students, we really are superheroes.
Marina Rodriguez is a California native, living and teaching in Texas, and a National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant.