the power of a caring teacher

“All kids need is a little help, a little hope, and someone who believes in them,” said Magic Johnson at a press conference once that I happened to see. Immediately, I thought, “That’s it! That’s the combination we, as educators, should follow.” If one quote can summarize my life’s philosophy, this is it.

For 25 years now, I have been teaching. “What do you teach” is the logical next question. The answer is more complicated than you might think. Technically, I teach courses in American Literature and a variety of other electives. But, in reality, I teach care: how to care, how caring changes us, what happens when there isn’t care, how caring impacts our learning, our experiences, our education and our future. So while “care” isn’t a subject area, it’s the underlying current of everything that I teach. More importantly, I hope it’s what is learned.

For 15 of my 25 years in education, I taught in the district where my own children now attend. Basically, I cared for the children of those who are now teaching my own children. Nearly all of those who are teaching my children were either new teachers when I was there or had children in my classes. In some way, shape or form, my children’s teachers are connected to our lives. All that being said, our oldest son (technically my step-son) is the living example of what it means to experience high school in the absence of a caring teacher.

Leaving middle school, our son had two life ambitions: teach music & math and build/fix things in between time. He was a straight A student; learning came easy to him- as he is a quick study, driven, motivated. Through his freshmen year, school remained okay. But, things happened: he was “cut” from soccer, he was ‘dismissed’ by teachers, and his experience in band became one of frustration, rather than affirmation. We felt helpless, as educators and parents, to “fix” this experience for him. Everything in us wanted his high school experience to be better. We took a deep breath and hoped the next year it would be better. It was worse.

His sophomore year was littered with being sent to the office for misbehavior, frustration that he wasn’t getting along with his teachers, feeling singled out. In “teen speak” we heard him saying that no one cared. We rallied. We reached out to teachers, one by one, via emails and conferences; we changed his schedule; we tried explaining things from our point of view, as educators; we encouraged him get through the day so that he could pursue his new hobbies and interests: hunting, fishing, fixing. In each communication with teachers and administrators, we returned to our refrain: he doesn’t think anyone cares, he doesn’t feel cared about. We started asking ourselves does anyone realize that this talented, wonderful, smart, funny, hard-working kid doesn’t feel validated in this school- the school he visited as a toddler when his dad worked there -the same school he used to brag to his friends that his dad and step mom worked in? As parents, we kept saying, if this is how we feel just trying to communicate, how must he feel having to exist, day in and day out, in this same space?

All I recall of his junior year is trying to survive it so that he could enroll in the Tech Center for his senior year. We thought if he could just make it through this one year, there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. One cold Sunday, he sat all of us down at the table and told us: As far as I can see, college is all just reading and writing, and those are the two things I least like doing. I don’t want to go to college. There it was. The boy that had so loved education that he wanted to teach was now counting the minutes to never connecting with education, again.

Here’s the thing- we KNOW that college is not for everyone. We’re totally supportive of his choice, or anyone’s choice, to enter the trades. We’re proud of all that he accomplishes-in and out of school, each and every day. However, way deep in our hearts we wonder: did he really choose the trades because that is truly what he wants in life, or was he pushed away so clearly by those in education that he felt this was the only way “out” from a world that clearly didn’t accept him? This question haunts us as he is about to complete the final semester of school.

Just in the time that I have spent writing this, he, single handedly, managed to repair his 16 year-old sister’s car after she put it in the way of a fire hydrant just a few days after getting her license. After a week of phone calls to the repair shop, our son finally said, “Dad, I’ve got this.” He went to a junk yard, found all the parts needed, brought them home, brought home the broken car and repaired it. All in less than 48 hours. For his sister- does he even like her? Yet look at what happens in an environment where he feels cared about and validated? He completes the task, takes initiative, meets the standard, drops the mic and heads off to go fishing. Love him. As I see his eyes sparkle in the satisfaction of a job well done, I know that he has the help and hope he needs. If only one other adult in his school day had believed in him….just a little…just once.