At the end of each course I teach, I have my students complete a small reflection assignment. (Sorry, this is a long one.)
It’s evolved over the years, the most recent addition to it being a short clip from a TED talk by a former pro wrestler. I feel like it ties in the message I try to thread through everything we do in my class: have confidence in your abilities– you can do anything you put your mind to.
I have my students watch the video, then answer a series of questions about their growth and progress through the course. I ask them to think about a piece of work they are proud of and WHY they are proud of it. Something they learned. Something they struggled with. Something they love about themselves that they can work on “turning up” in the future. (It’s from the video. Once you see it, you’ll get it.)
At the end, I often leave a space for them to write any final thoughts. Some students choose not to write anything, others sometimes write about an experience they had in class that meant something to them. Sometimes they vent about something they weren’t happy about. Sometimes I have a student who expresses gratitude for something that happened in the course.
And sometimes, I have a student who catches me off guard and leaves me a note that will stay with me forever. I’ve had a few over the years–messages and comments from students that serve as reminders for why we do this job, even when we can’t remember ourselves.
This year, I had a grade 12 student who came into my class with (I think) a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Early on in the course I heard him vent about some of his previous teachers, and some not-so-great experiences he had had in the classroom.
I could tell he was someone who came into my class already having decided what kind of experience this would be, based on his experiences in English in the past. He came in with an attitude of “I’m not good at English”, and didn’t seem all that willing to challenge that perception.
Well, that doesn’t work for me.
Over the course of the semester, I watched this kid let go of what thought he couldn’t do, and instead begin to believe in what he could. I watched him learn the value of hard work as he learned that asking questions is sometimes a sign of strength, not weakness. I watched his confidence grow as a writer and critical thinker. I watched him step out of his comfort zone and really engage in our class discussions, sharing thoughts and insights that sometimes even blew *me* away.
I watched this kid begin to believe in himself, and believe ME, it was magic.
This student, who told me he had had trouble breaking 80% in all of his previous English courses, is going to finish my class with a 95%.
I think I might secretly be prouder than he is.
On Friday, he handed in his course reflection, and I made the mistake of reading it before class. I was BAWLING. I can’t share the whole thing because it’s long, but he shared with me that for the first time in his young life, he felt “awake”. He felt motivated to go after the things he wanted in life, and for the first time, he actually felt like they were possible. My students all groaned when they saw the size of the novel we were going to read, but this student told me how reading it had changed his life… how “digging in” (what I call discussing and analyzing) helped him find the joy in reading again.
He told me that he now felt like his thoughts and opinions on things had value, even if they weren’t the same as someone else’s.
He told me he felt proud of himself… it was the first time in a long that he had felt that.
At the end of the assignment, he wrote me a letter. As much as this student struggled with confidence, so did I. I’ve spent the last few months wondering if I’m really cut out for this… if all the sacrifices that come with this job are worth it.
As I’ve drowned in marking and planning and emails and meetings, I’ve wondered If I’m any good at it at all.
…and then, every once in a while, I am given a reminder for why I became a teacher in the first place, and it’s not for the pension or summers off.
I became a teacher because I saw the magic that happens when you see a kid really learn something. When you see a student come into their own. When you see a kid really begin to believe in themselves.
When you see that you’re making a difference in someone’s life, and that what you’re doing, matters. Even if it’s just to one person.
At the end of his reflection, I found the reminder I so desperately needed:
“You really did open my eyes, Mrs. ______, and helped me grow as a person, even if you did so from behind a screen. My goal is to become a teacher in the future, and I remember you once telling us about an English teacher you had in Grade 12 that changed your perspective on English. Well, you’ve done that for me 10 fold. You are the teacher I aspire to be, if not the person I aspire to be. I really can’t thank you enough. Thank you for one of my most favourite high school semesters and memories ever. I’ll never forget you.”
I’m still exhausted and overwhelmed, and the marking is still oppressive. I have a mountain to climb before I’m done tomorrow, and I am just so… tired.
I did it. Even if I only helped one kid see his own potential, then that is a win in my books.
This student may not ever really know how much his words mean to me. It was the lift I needed to get through this last weekend. At least now I know I’ve done something good. If nothing else, I made a difference in this kid’s life.
Somehow, that makes all the hard bits worth it.