Here and Now

My first official day of summer. My three kids are away at three different places. At my desk alone are 74 things that beckon my attention. A small pile of thank-you cards make me smile.

Years ago a vice-principal told me that teaching is hard because the reward is not immediate, that you don’t know the influence and impact you’ve made on a student until many years later. I think I knew what he meant, but I also thought that time and distance would make it even more difficult to find out.

Why can’t the rewards of teaching be here and now. Why am I spending hours crafting this lesson if my students didn’t care to learn it. How am I supposed to care about my students if they didn’t care about me. How do I make it through another day.

What does a teacher consider to be a “reward” anyway. How many Starbucks gift cards should I be getting — as compared to my colleagues. (There is nothing worse than showing off to the wrong people. I can just imagine saying, “Hey, Erin, I got six gift cards from kids today!” And Erin replies, “Ha!! I got twenty.” Shit.)

Teaching is physically and emotionally draining. And if that sentence doesn’t describe you as a teacher, then I think you should write a how-to book.

So I’m thinking now of the small daily rewards from students that must have fueled and replenished the parts of me that felt drained and lost. These are the things that they do and say. Almost on a daily basis.

Tito dashes into my class with an excitement like he hasn’t seen me in weeks, “Hi Mrs. Win! How are you? I’m the first one in here again.”

Maddie seems most genuine when she comes right up to me, “How has your day been, Mrs. Nguyen?”

Jonathan greets me with, “Go Oregon Ducks.” And before a quiz he says matter-of-factly, “I’m ready for this. I feel loose and ready because I learned from the best.”

The kids give me rousing applause after a lesson they know I’ve worked hard on and that they’ve learned from.

They applaud me when I share something good or semi-brave that I did.

They know how to deliver sarcasm kindly, “What favorite lesson of yours do we get to do today?”

One 8th grader would start, “I love you, Mrs. Nguyen!” Another kid follows, “I love you more!” Yet another, “And I love you most!”

John, an aspiring musician, remembers all the concerts I go to and tells me what songs he likes.

They roll their eyes and smile when they know I’m lying.

I realize that so much of my daily interaction with kids isn’t directly tied to mathematics. Even though in my teaching head, it’s all about math, it’s all about problem solving and struggling and asking questions. But my students’ heads aren’t filled with math the way that mine is. They just want to make it through the day — like the rest of us grownups. They are social creatures. They need to talk to each other or they’ll die.

Then as the last days of school draw near, the rewards I get are these tangibly beautiful thank-you cards from students that mostly say how much they’ve enjoyed my class and what an amazing teacher I am. You know, it is what it is :)

But these two cards — from parents — made me cry.

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(And just now. Just now I recall someone recently accusing me of practicing “zero-sum teaching.” I don’t fucking think so.)

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