As the School Year Ends, What Mattered?

I remember standing at the back of a crowded, sticky-hot gymnasium each June and watching my eighth-grade students graduate. The week leading up to the big day was always a blur of rehearsals and last-minute preparations, so the ceremony itself usually provided a respite -- a moment to reflect on the year that just ended. Each time, familiar questions flashed through my mind: What had we learned in our ten months together? What would the kids hold on to once they'd walked out the school's doors for the last time? What would I hold on to? What mattered?

Of course, that was over a decade ago, before NCLB had tightened its screws on teachers and students, before the corporate brand of school reform had convinced so many politicians and high-level administrators that anything that counts in education can be counted. But my sense is that even though a lot has changed for teachers today -- the relentless pressure to toe the accountability line, the public pummeling to which they've been recently subjected --many still ask themselves similar questions at year's end.

So, as this school year drew to a close, I asked some Chicago-area teachers what they would take away from their experience.

What was meaningful? What made it worthwhile? What mattered?

Kirstin Graef, kindergarten (first-year teacher)
Looking at the work the kids did at the beginning and then at the end! Wow, how did that happen? Sometimes I don't know who is doing more teaching, me or them. There were many times I felt like just a guide for my kids, and they were the ones that took everything and ran with it. One student especially made it worthwhile. He came in at the beginning of the year roaring, scissors swinging, hitting, yelling all day. He worked hard to learn the limits of school, to participate positively, and to be a good friend. He left with a hug, and in a calm voice said, "See you in first grade Ms. Graef!" Smiles, hugs, excitement, and knowing that overall I did the best I could -- that makes it worthwhile.

Katie Hogan, high school English
Losing staff members due to budget cuts devastated our ability to educate all of our students. Staff cuts exhausted already depleted resources, demoralized tenuously built bonds of trust between teachers and students, and forced even the best teachers to question whether "it's all worth it."

What else mattered was the continuing resilience. Another student rises out of 14 years of foster care to graduate, teenagers with cancer write essays and poems, and young people with autism continue to teach the rest of the world that imagination begets genius.

Noel Perez, alternative high school
Seeing my students graduate made it all worthwhile. For many, graduation was not a reality at first. Just getting to know them, and their struggles both inside and outside of school, made graduation that much sweeter. Many students had a real hard road to travel. At one graduation this year, we had a student come up to us, with tears in his eyes, and give us each a big hug! It put everything into perspective and reminded me why I choose to teach.

Kimberly Bowsky, seventh grade
Trying to give young teenaged students books that piqued their interest...A small group that I was teaching actually loved The Little Prince, so much so that a student wrote as her favorite saying on Facebook a corruption of the biggest lesson from it: "Only wit your heart you can see wat is really important your eyes just see wat visibable" (sic).

Professionally, the attacks on the need for humans as teachers, our efficacy, our professionalism, and our right to organize have been maddening and tiresome. The attacks on public-school education have strengthened my resolve not to let outside interests trounce us into the ground without a fight.

Heather Kral, high school math
I will remember this year forever. This was the first year in five years of teaching that I felt really good at the end of most days, as opposed to burnt out or frustrated. It was truly a special year and it is all thanks to my students.

Ali Ferguson, fifth grade
Looking up at my dad's wake and seeing the faces of all the teachers in my school who traveled two hours after a long day of work to support me. That mattered.

Anonymous, third grade
We received our ISAT scores last Friday. Twenty-one of my 26 students passed. Chicago Public Schools and the administration would say that mattered. However, I honestly cannot agree. Although I breathed a HUGE sigh a relief when I saw the results, I still feel like I cheated my students out of a year. They passed a test that allows them to continue on to fourth grade, but I don't feel that they learned anything from that. From January to March all we taught was ISAT prep. It was torture for me and for my students. I'm sure there are some other things that mattered this year to my students, but because of the huge emphasis on the ISATs, most of my students would say passing the ISAT was what mattered. In my short five years in CPS, education has gone downhill, and unfortunately what I think matters cannot even be taught.

Joanna Hoglund, eighth grade
I recently found a note that said, "Ms. Hoglund, you really believed in me and helped me get confidence." This message gave me such a deep sense of satisfaction. My student noticed that I pushed her to be proud of herself. When all is said and done, not only do my students recognize that I believe in them, they have begun to believe in themselves.

Guadalupe Flores, high school Spanish
This year I got to teach AP Spanish and, believe it or not, all 25 of my students in that class were very academically driven and were always eager to learn new things. Seeing their growth and their hunger for knowledge gave me a reason to get up in the morning and teach them.

Carrie Watt, second grade
What mattered most to me this year were the days I got to spend with my students without any pressure of a standardized test. Those days were few and far between, but when I got to make a giant clock on our classroom floor using students as the minute and hour hands, or watch my students light up as they wrote letters to students in Barcelona, Spain -- that is when I realized that those moments matter the most.

Jim Arey, high school social science
Despite the fact that my profession has been vilified in the court of public opinion, that both benefits and voice are under attack, and that my success in the classroom comes down to a number on an assessment, I feel empowered.

Moments like this shake your belief down to the core. Am I worthy? Does my contribution matter? Can I make a difference? What kind of a profession do I want the younger teachers to inherit? Is a child just a number? My questions led me to action. I became a union representative, re-connected with the school improvement plan, volunteered to become a mentor, questioned authority, and renewed my sense of purpose for the teaching profession.

Tiffany Childress, high school science
Watching an African American male youth (always the subject of failure and crisis) move from freshman year to graduation, and then on to a FULLY paid college education at the prestigious Morehouse College.

Watching the transformation of a young man who was a self-proclaimed "fighter" move to a conviction of nonviolence through the Kingian nonviolence philosophy taught at our school.

Creating a science framework in which my students could see themselves as scientists, and laughing to myself when a young man, who is moved beyond self-control, blurts out, "I LOVE SCIENCE!!!"

Vicki Fink, seventh grade
When I passed back papers, hearing students say, "I love her comments!" "She liked that I wrote ____." "She actually reads this whole thing."

During the last week, a student (13-year-old boy) said, "On the last day, I'm just going to give you a high five. If I say bye or give you a hug, I'll cry because I'm going to miss you. And I'm a Greaser [we read The Outsiders and he has connected to the group of Greasers in the story], and Greasers don't cry in front of strangers."

Simply stated, the students mattered. No matter how many struggles I went through, it always came down to the students -- they got me through the day, made me see that I'm still in the right profession, and gave me the optimism/hope/courage to continue fighting for what I believe in.

Anonymous school principal, Chicago
The thing that I find most memorable about this school year was seeing [one of our seventh graders] grow from an introvert, who barely wrote one word, who never did his homework, who failed a number of classes -- the person some teachers privately thought must be an idiot -- turn into "My Little College Professor," espousing wisdom in his answers far beyond his age and maturity level, holding conversations in science and social studies classes that proved he was well informed about local news and world issues.

All of this because one teacher stopped and paid attention. One teacher listened to him and cared. One teacher shared what she learned with other teachers (including the principal), and as a result taught us to appreciate this student and his eccentric ways, and the vast amount of knowledge and wisdom he possessed.

So, it won't be Performance Management that I remember. It won't be the standardized test scores and whether we're on probation, or whether we made A.Y.P. It won't be that we didn't receive a budget until June 6 with the expectation that it be completed by June 12.

What I will remember is that one teacher...can make a difference!