Recently, I received the following note from a former student, "[y]ou were a great teacher. I thought you were hard. And I didn't really like you. But over time I realized you were challenging us. And I respected you."
This is significant to me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I've not been at this school site for over a year and a half. This was written out on a "shout out" form and given to me by his current teacher. The second is I remember this student and how there were times when I didn't like him much either. He is a kid with great potential, but like many kids at this age, sometimes he would do less than his best. In other words, he was a typical sixth-grade boy, entering adolescence and sometimes seeking to challenge authority.
I will also tell you that I don't really remember how well he performed on his state mandated standardized test and I doubt that he remembers as well. If memory serves, he was in my "benchmark" group, which means that he was at grade level. However, what he does remember about being in my classroom is that I was hard and challenging. I'm sure that he would also tell you that some days my classroom was also a place where we laughed, told jokes, and shared stories about our lives outside of the classroom. There were even times that I taught without using the district mandated pacing guide, some days taking longer on writing and grammar skills than the "allotted" time. For me, it was important to focus on where my kids were at and not where the District thought they should be. So, call me a rebel -- I've been called worse.
When teachers talk about how test scores don't show the whole picture of what we do, this is what we mean. Yes, my students knew that in my classroom I expected them to work. I also expected them to treat each other and other students and adults on our campus with dignity and respect. There were times when I rejected work from students who I knew could do better and gave them the chance to prove it. For some of my students who were English Language Learners, I was thrilled when they were able to turn in a well-written essay that may not have been at the same standard as their English speaking classmates, but I knew that based on their own ability; they would receive a good grade.
Some days, I'll admit, might have been perceived as "easy" days for students. I simply refused to treat my students like mindless widgets. It was on those days where I often learned the most from them as we would talk for a good 20 minutes about almost everything. It was during these times where I would find out about their families, their dreams and wishes. It is where I would learn about a parent battling (and ultimately losing to) breast cancer, or the impending deportation of another parent, or that one of my students had to do laundry every Tuesday for his family and often feared he would lose the quarters.
This doesn't mean I was the perfect teacher. I am sure that my students would also tell you that. They also came to realize that I wasn't afraid to apologize when I blew it in some way. For me, as a teacher, it was absolutely essential that if I expected my students to apologize when they made a mistake, then I had better be willing to do the same. When papers weren't graded right away, I would tell them the reason why -- even if it meant that I chose to spend time with my family or play The Sims on a Sunday, rather than spend a few hours grading essays written by my sixth graders.
However, for many of my students, my classroom was a place of stability. It was a place where they knew that they could count on me being there, where my rules. expectations and consequences were clearly defined. It is obvious to me that for a least one student, he remembers me and that I challenged him to do and be better. In my mind, there is no greater gift that a teacher can give than that.