Why I Teach: Catching Kids Before They Sink

I used to be a bad girl. I was self-destructive, angry and fearless. These traits, coupled with a decent amount of intelligence, took me to all the places bad girls go. For many years, I bounced from bad decisions to bad jobs to bad relationships. My life was a mess for a long time, and all I knew how to do was make it worse. I couldn’t talk to my mother, my father wasn’t around, and my friends were either victims of their own circumstances or they were busy creating better lives for themselves. I was alone for a long time, and it felt like I would drown forever.

Lifeguards come in many guises, and it’s only now that I realize that most of mine were teachers. Mr. S. in sixth grade was the first man who was nice to me. Looking back, I realize he was nice to everyone, but the point was, he was nice to me. Mrs. Q was demanding and serious, but she yanked my latent public speaking talents right out of me, and then held me to a standard she had no doubt I could achieve. Mr. G. was the curmudgeonly 10th-grade English teacher whose biting wit was matched only by his expansive understanding of both literature and adolescence. After some time, instead of feeling like I was drowning, it started to feel like I was treading water, and that didn’t feel so bad.

Most of the students I teach today come from the same background I had. They have decent homes, food in the refrigerator, and heat that works. On the surface, they shouldn’t have any complaints. Their schools are safe, one or both parents are around, and they’ve always got the latest gadgets. They don’t have the kinds of challenges that kids in urban or rural areas face. Their lives, however, are not as charmed as they appear.

The despair, disgust and rage that plagued me as an adolescent comes in different forms in my school, but it’s the same three-headed beast I used to know so well. While it makes me feel good to hear it, I’m not surprised when my students tell me I understand them, because I really do. Though it's more years than I care to remember, the point is I do remember how wretched and lonely growing up can be, even in the best of circumstances. Whether it’s feeling neglected by a busy parent or isolated by a group that used to be friendly, the discomfort of growing up still pinches kids in both large and small ways. I’ve lived long enough to know that most of the things that my students agonize over today will be long forgotten tomorrow. But they hurt like hell today, and tomorrow always looks impossibly far away.

So I look at them and really listen when they tell me some funny, sad or interesting stories from their lives. I let my stomach growl instead of going to lunch when a student asks my advice on some matter that may be trivial to me, but is everything to her. I stop working when one of my current or former students comes in during the only quiet time I have before or after school to tell me something they saw or read or heard about that reminded them of what we did in class. Because despite their outward appearance, a lot of these kids feel like they’re drowning in pressure from their parents, their peers and their society.

Every day, my students get the benefit of an adult who is truly there—genuinely interested in them and committed to helping them grow. They stretch themselves to meet the rigorous academic standards I set, then beam with pride when I praise them for their above-grade-level efforts. They meet and exceed my challenges, even though they're in the foggy middle of middle school: too old to be a little kid, too young to be a full-blown teenager. So I do all I can for them, because I remember, and I know. I’m the lifeguard now, and no one is going to drown on my watch.  

Sofen teaches at Sparta Middle School in Sparta, N.J.

Why do you teach? What brings you back to the classroom year after year? Let us know by sending in a “Why I Teach” column to Teaching Tolerance. “Why I Teach” submissions should be e-mailed to editor@teachingtolerance.org. Check here for further directions.


I didn't meet a teacher like

Submitted by Mary on 2 January 2011 - 2:48am.

I didn't meet a teacher like you until I went to college. There, a favorite professor let me take up all his office time. I don't know how the poor guy ever wrote all the books and articles he did during my years there because he was spending all his time listening to me chatter. Now, there's a young woman in my life, our babysitter, that goes on and on... And I smile. I remember those years of confusion and feeling utterly lost, even though on the outside you have it all together. Thank you for being a listening ear.

Laura, This is beautiful.

Submitted by Judy on 30 August 2010 - 10:00am.

This is beautiful. You are amazing.

I am Laura's brother and

Submitted by Andy on 28 August 2010 - 4:59pm.

I am Laura's brother and after reading this article on Why I Teach I couldn't feel more proud to have her as my sister. To know what she does everyday to shape and save young minds and actually deal with the problems her students have in there daily lives and be there for them on her own time makes me feel so proud. It just goes to show you, that there are people out there that do care of what today's students have to say and not just dismiss them. I know our Mom is looking down on her with THE biggest grin on her face, being so proud of what her daughter has become.

I am Laura's brother's

Submitted by Kim on 29 August 2010 - 9:34am.

I am Laura's brother's forever Girl friend...
This is an outstanding article, just as you are an outstanding person.. This made me cry a little, my teacher's were unforgettable and I love that you are one of those people.. I'm thankful that your students have YOU..

Hi - Thank you so much for

Submitted by Andrea Doremus Cuetara on 28 August 2010 - 12:48pm.

Hi -

Thank you so much for your wisdom and words. I DO teach in the most archetypal of "urban" schools. I am basically on the verge of crying all the time for the unacknowledged and untreated PTSD of my students, who are expected to perform anyway.

It was helpful to me to read your reminder that all kids go through the hardship of growing up in this world.

If only our school districts

Submitted by Lisanne on 28 August 2010 - 12:29pm.

If only our school districts valued these traits as much as they value test scores and winning sports teams. I wish they would remember that we are raising children and not produce.
Lovely story.

It really doesn't matter if

Submitted by Scottye on 29 August 2010 - 10:00am.

It really doesn't matter if the school district remembers, althouth that would be nice. Her point is, the children know. And the children WILL remember.

Thank you for putting this

Submitted by Patrick Higgins, Jr. on 28 August 2010 - 8:23am.

Thank you for putting this out there for all of us to read and share. Regardless of our teacher training programs or our master's programs, there is no real way to learn what I believe to be the foremost trait in an excellent teacher: with-it-ness.

As strange and as non-empirical as it sounds, it is easily one of the most recognizable traits of a truly gifted educator. Can you relate to who they are? If you can't, how can it be expected for you to meet them at a place where they are and take them to a place where they didn't think they could go? We don't teach content--we teach kids, and we need to know who they are and where they are before we can.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I have worked with Laura for a few years and have witnessed first-hand how each student gets her full attention regardless of IQ level, maturity level, or her own schedule and commitments. Laura's classroom is one in which risk-taking is the norm, and students expect ambiguity because they know they will discover something new eventually.

Wow, so nicely put. Those

Submitted by Rose on 27 August 2010 - 9:42pm.

Wow, so nicely put. Those kids are so lucky to have you in their lives. It is so true they need somebody to stand by them, remember it is hard to grow up sometimes and give them a shoulder to lean on.

This teacher is remarkable in

Submitted by Lucy Utt on 27 August 2010 - 9:25pm.

This teacher is remarkable in her commitment to making respect central to her work with kids! Laura, thank you - thank you on behalf of my kids, my grandkids and every other child in this world. Your example is a light for so many others.

and this is what gives me

Submitted by diana klein on 27 August 2010 - 9:21pm.

and this is what gives me hope. Thank you for remembering and for giving back.

Excellent article, Laura. I

Submitted by Bethany on 27 August 2010 - 9:18pm.

Excellent article, Laura. I love the analogy of the teacher as lifeguard - knowing when to sit back with a watchful eye and when to jump into the deep water. I, too, share your love for my 10th grade students - and no one will drown on my watch, either.

Best wishes for the 2010-11 school year!

Brilliant demonstration of

Submitted by Liz on 27 August 2010 - 7:41pm.

Brilliant demonstration of what it means to live into a high calling. May you continue to bless, learn, teach and listen. Bravo!

Thanks Laura. Your writing

Submitted by Trevor Barton on 27 August 2010 - 7:31pm.

Thanks Laura. Your writing is wonderful and 'heart'ful...I'm sure your teaching is, too!

Hi, I would simply say

Submitted by Srividhya Sundaram on 27 August 2010 - 3:45pm.


I would simply say marvellous job! I admire you for your words that speaks your genuine actions. I like the enthusiasm and the spirit in your approach with a positive thought!

All the best for all your future interactions with your students :)

It is wonderful to read this.

Submitted by Ann Weller on 27 August 2010 - 3:36pm.

It is wonderful to read this. Thank you! I know teaches know in their heads the kind of influence they have, but you know it in your heart.

I give you praise for

Submitted by Cindi on 27 August 2010 - 3:14pm.

I give you praise for remembering what it felt like to be a child. If all teachers, parents or those who have contact with kids would take the time to sometimes, just listen to them. Stop ourselves from always wanting to believe we have to teach children, when in fact, there is a lot our children can teach us. Thanks

Thank you! It was a teacher

Submitted by Nicholas West on 1 September 2010 - 1:29pm.

Thank you! It was a teacher like you who got my attention in school by praising me for dooing good and frowned at me for doing bad. Kathleen Feeney, my fifth grade teacher was my lifegaurd. I am now a military veteran and a college student if not for her I would have been a high school drop out. Some of my fondest memories of school were in her class and of that school year. Keep up the great work and thank you to you and teachers like you who can relate to students and grasp their attention.