“Why do I teach?” is a question that I ask myself often, usually around 6 a.m. each Monday morning. The answer has changed over time.
Before I set foot in a classroom, I had grand answers. I would be the sole reason every one of my students would go to college. I would change the life trajectory of each student I taught. I might have even imagined a student thanking me in his or her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Then, I began my teaching career, and my delusions of grandeur were quickly dissolved. I was confronted by the brokenness of the world like never before.
My knowledge of solving equations did nothing to ease the pain of a child growing up with an abusive parent. Spending five hours a week in my math class was not going to compensate for hours spent waiting for a family member who constantly forgot to pick up a student from school. A lively discussion about random sampling did not drown out the sound of a growling stomach. And no matter how great a teacher I became, these things would always be true.
Teaching is not always a traditional success story, and on many days, I want to give up. My lesson might fall flat. Other times, I know I’ve only taught halfheartedly. Often, I teach with everything I have, only to realize my students are still struggling to understand the concepts. I tell my students how rich their lives will be when they accept people who are not exactly like them, only to see segregated tables at lunch. I cannot always give my students the help they need, the love they deserve or the discipline they want.
But sometimes I can.
I used to think that teaching was all about “making a difference.” Now, I think it is about making many small differences. One of the places where I see these small differences the most is in seminars with my students. We choose an article, piece of artwork or video and discuss the big ideas and values of the text. One of the greatest examples of this was when we watched and discussed a video about bullying. Students were able to share their experiences of loneliness and anger. We then pivoted to a discussion on healing these hurts. I watched as students shared their past experiences in order to help classmates. Afterward, I even shared some of my experiences on the topic. I was moved as I watched my students care for one another and support each other.
As a teacher, I will never know how many SAT questions my students aced because of my instruction. I do not know if they were kind to an outsider because I was kind to them. I cannot know how their lives were different because of our year together.
There are some things I do know, though. My attendance at a sporting event can sometimes completely change a student’s behavior in my classroom. Taking time out of my planning period to listen to a student’s struggles sometimes ends with a thank you note found on my desk. When I sneak a snack to a hungry student, I see her level of concentration increase. Every so often, a pairing of students who are very different from one another results in a wonderful friendship. Many times, the greatest difference I make is to let one of my students know how beautiful he or she is to me.
I have one year with my students. One year to help them understand the difficult concepts of seventh-grade math. One year to let them know they are special to me. One year to make them smile. One year to let them know each of them is intrinsically valuable. One year to let them know they are strong enough to conquer the obstacles that lie ahead.
So, that is why I teach. I do not want to miss a single opportunity to make those tiny differences.
Lauren Allgood is a gifted and talented teacher with Metro Nashville Public Schools in Nashville, Tennessee.