Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Hope Is A Thing With Feathers"

Why did we become teachers?

Sure there are days when it feels like I am hitting my head against a wall. Students haven’t done their homework, the administration is bothering me because my grades have not been uploaded yet. I have yard duty in the school cafeteria.

There are days when I go home exhausted and I still have hours of work ahead of me. Parents and students challenge me, the papers keep coming in, I need to prep my lessons for tomorrow. Summers mean classes and workshops. I can never learn enough, and there are always new methods and classroom ideas to come up with and try out. The time is never my own, even on the weekends.

But every Monday, I show up for more. Why?

I have hope. I do not believe in a lost cause. Yes, the world seems mired in darkness, students read less and less, and no one seems to know how to get things back on track. But I know my presence in the classroom is a blow against all that. The odds are overwhelming, and the learning I facilitate may not have any effect for a long time, but I believe in what I do.

In my moments of depression, I am often discouraged. I have had to stop the car on my commute to throw up. There are moments when I think I cannot go on, or that I’ll someday drop dead in front of the class. But that’s just drama. When I walk in that room, see my students, launch into the lesson, everything lifts. This is where I was born to be, pure and simple.

And that is why I know that if you do not feel that, the classroom is not for you. Sure, we can look at test scores, and successful schools, and effective administrators, but it all boils down to the teacher. Why are you a teacher? The answer to that question is everything.

We teach for the moment, as we should live. I have hope that if I teach the children well, somehow the balance will shift. Light will come out of dark. Reason will triumph over nonsense. Someone will wake up one morning deep in the future and say, “I understand. That is what he was trying to teach me. I understand.”

It happened to me, so I know it can happen to my students.

Once I went to a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, and while walking through the stalls and booths, a voice called my name. I turned to see a beautiful young woman motioning for me to come to her stand. “Do I know you?” I asked. I am always embarrassed when I do not recognize or remember the names of former students.

“Yes, I was in your class at Chaminade.” Her face was familiar. “I’m helping out here to earn money for grad school,” she said.

We exchanged pleasantries; I asked what she majored in and what she would be studying in the future. She was a biological sciences major. “Wow,” I replied. “I guess all that literature and grammar won’t be much help with cell division.” It was a weak joke.

“Actually, you know what I remember about your class? You always told us to write what we feel, that if we did not believe what we wrote ourselves, no reader would either. I did that for every paper I ever wrote in college—sociology, history, and literature. It made a huge difference, although you probably would not have known that when I was in your class.”

We do not know the ripples we make in the pond, the effect our teaching has on our students in their lives. They wander through the halls, class to class, they dream of getting out, of seizing the world by the throat, of life and love and the mystery of it all.

Every day when I stand up and begin a class, I am acting on hope. We send these kids out into the world, and we can only hope that they will be happy in their lives, that they will be good friends, lovers, parents, people. I cannot determine their fates; I can only help them in this one moment on the journey, and I can hope.


  1. Great piece, Mr. Martin. I believe we all are connected to each other in a way, whether its by a tiny thread, a rope, or a chain. We all effect each other, good and bad; those are the ripples along that connection. You have obviously effected many people's lives by being a teacher and I respect that.

  2. Thanks Vatche for your comment. You all are my inspiration. And it seems I have quite a bit of reading to do over on your blog after I am done grading finals. I will look forward to that.

    Everyone else, check out Vatche's blog:
    or click on the link in the favorites to the right.

    And "teachin" welcome and thank you for the comment. I like your blog--very dynamic and colorful. We all need to check it out:
    I have added you to the favorites list on The Teacher's View as well.

  3. Just the inspiring words I needed to hear right now, at a moment in which hope is a hard thing to muster for me as a first-year teacher. But I do have faith in education and the power of the classroom, and so I must try harder to be hopeful that what I do will make some sort of difference, at least for some.

    Thank you.

  4. Thank you. It's been one of those "terrible, horrible, no good very bad" weeks, and this was just what I needed.

  5. Thanks to Mr. B and Ms. S for your comments. Sometimes those "no good, very bad weeks" just keep coming and coming. Hang in there.

  6. This is such an inspirational post. I really appreciated your comments about the ripples we cause. In the end, we teachers are not in it for the recognition or the glory, but for the opportunity to cause all those little ripples that will combine into waves that will change the world.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Jason. You hit the heart of the matter. To paraphrase Gandhi, we are the change we wish to see in the world.


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