Yes, this job can be as frustrating as all hell. It takes patience and thick skin before you shift through all-that-does-not-matter and reach the big pay-offs that come with the job.
The small pay-offs are everywhere and they are those things having to do with “aha!” moments or those little comments about students appreciating your teaching. One of the best comments I receive is “I learn something in this class.” It is also one of the more scary comments to hear because it often follows “I don’t learn anything in my other classes.” I’m not tooting my own horn by any means because it is not always the case. Other nice comments are the “one of my favorite teacher” comments, the “you get it, Mr. Brown” phrase, and the terrific banter that I engage in with the students.
An example of long-term pay off occurred Friday as I walked from a local Mexican restaurant to home. I was calmly finishing my two mile walk, listening The Mike O’Meara Show podcast (Don and Mike fans rejoice), when a car suddenly screeched to a stop across the street from me and a man leapt out of the auto and ran towards me. I was startled at first, and then realized that the man was actually a former student. This particular student had graduated from a local college recently and was about to move to Portland (a very popular choice with Ukiah kids lately) to continue his career. We chatted about my old class (he took my AP Comparative Government class), his passions, and mentioned some of the old students and how they were doing. It was truly great to see him.
But the big pay-off wasn’t the visit. That was a small part of it. The pay-off was knowing that he was going to do just fine. This was a kid that was very bright, yet gave off the vibe (as is not uncommon with a lot of North Coast teenagers) as a too ethereal to concentrate in the “real world.” But back-in-the-day I was always getting irritated with these students because I saw so much potential that was going to be wasted on unreasonable passions. That was many years ago. I think part of my maturation as a teacher has included the realization that “potential” and “impact” as such a deeper meaning. Most of those “slacker” students have a much better balance than those academically focused ones, and while it occasionally makes this teacher pull his hair out, it has allowed me to appreciate the gifts that they have shared with me in a different way. It might be a song, a play, or the simple fact they have a wonderful soul. To this day one of my highest achieving students that went Harvard could be classified as one of the greatest human beings on the planet, for no other reason than it was who she was. The grades were low down on the list compared to the goodness of this woman’s soul. And as a teacher I am surrounded by good people. Good people that will grow to be great people that will do great things, most of which I will not be around to witness. But occasionally one will drop by and share some of that goodness with me. That occurred on Friday afternoon.
I won’t lie. I live vicariously through the lives of my students. Facebook allows me to peek into their present tense and watch success and struggle. One rare occasion I’ll shoot out a word of encouragement if the student is in a rough situation. I’m more apt to shouting out kudos or hitting the “Like” button when those students succeed. Because, in some little selfish way, I’ve succeeded.
And I get to exhale a little bit. Because they’re doing just fine.