At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I retired as a full-time administrator. After a summer off without thinking about the upcoming school year, I found a position as an Academic Assistant in a local public charter school. I am now working with students in grades 6-12 in a high poverty school. And absolutely loving it! We are a college prep charter located in the poorest performing school district in our state. Our leadership has “broken the mold.” We have a 5-year graduation rate of 96%, 100% of those attending post-secondary school in the fall after graduation, and they all return as sophomores. With a couple of exceptions, everyone I work with is younger than my children. It is a gas watching them work!
I recently shared the following with them:
I am finishing year 40 something as a professional educator. One of the definitions of veteran teachers is that they have been hit by the same pendulum numerous times. I have seen a lot of stuff come and go, and come back. I have those bumps and bruises. I also have several of what I call “self-inflicted scars,” gained because of changing the rules of the game and doing the right things instead of doing things the right way. My schools have changed the rules for everybody. From 1987-2006, every school or district I worked in was a either a state, national, or international model. I am humbled and honored to be part of this staff, working in another one.
I will never forget our CEO’s words to start this year. We are not just “teaching kids,” we are working for a movement. We exist as a challenge to the soft discrimination of low expectations. We have accepted the calling of all professional educators, to nurture hope and keep dreams alive. Our tools are weapons of mass instruction.
As teachers in a revolutionary school, you realize, as did other teachers I have worked with, that your jobs are too small for your spirits. You do not want to work for a school, you want to work for something that has a larger meaning and gives you a sense of purpose about what you are doing.
You have a desire for more meaning and purpose. We all want our lives, and consequently our work to matter, to be part of a larger vision. And to feel that we are contributing to it, for ourselves and the lives of the kids we touch every day. Our kids will be successful because of us and what we do with them, not despite their time spent here. I have worked in a district where the cars in the student lots at the high schools were a lot nicer than the cars in the faculty lots. I did not get the feeling that what I did mattered to the kids all that much. Going to school was becoming a job. So, I moved on.
It is never an easy task, not even “back in the day.” If it were, anybody could do it. But you have accepted the challenge by being here, and I for one am thankful and grateful that you have.
If I had to sum up our year in one minute, it would look like this:
“These people back here, that’s why I come to work. That’s why I build airplanes in the sky. We’re not just building a plane here; we’re building a dream. We don’t get a lot of thanks up here, but when I look over there and I see that little kid, the look in his eyes, that’s all the thanks I need.”
Pretty much sums it up for me, this year, and every other year.
I recently visited with a couple of high school students. There is a good chance you know them.
I noticed that one had logged in to a class at 1:14am. I asked what was going on that prompted him “coming to school” at 1:14am. His reply took my breath away: “I want to do well here and pass my classes, and while I was awake, I wanted to do something productive with my time.” This student is currently not threatening the honor roll list. I am sure his missing work report contains several entries. But at this point, we can’t help it that the work wasn’t turned in “on time.” What blew me away is that this student cares enough to be losing sleep about his work and showing up at 1:14am to make a difference.
I asked the other student what she wanted to be once she left high school. Not what she wanted to do, that is a completely different question. I shared with her that when I was in high school, I wanted to be happy as an adult. Then I could prepare for a career that would make me happy. I have been successful, so far.
Her response was not one that I expected. “I want to be stable. I have never been in the same school for more than 2 years. My Mom and my Aunt are the only ones in my house that help me, and I don’t want to go through that anymore.”
We all want stability. And every teacher is a counselor. We have staff that help our kids with college admissions, but that is a totally different job description than being a counselor for them. For us, that means showing up. Every day. Not just from 7:30-4:15. It means that a student can come to school at 1:14am and know that someone is “there” who cares for and about him.
I love to hike. A few years ago, I went on a sojourn with several friends in Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked across a joining of three streams, each about a foot wide, and could say that we were seeing the source of the Colorado River. As that water flows downstream, it will narrow and widen, flow around some rocks and over others, and the little stream we saw as about a foot wide will form the Grand Canyon. To me, that is the essence of what we do as educators. Our kids are energy in search of adventure. They all have many obstacles to overcome as they grow and mature, and we will help them navigate through many of them. Sometimes we wonder, “What can one person do? What difference will my effort make?” Great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned tasks. We will each continue to show up, every day, and be the stability that our kids are looking for. And with our help, they will also accomplish Grand things.
By training, I am a musician. My undergraduate transcript says that music was my major, education was my minor. So, if you have read this far, I will leave you with a song. Please pay attention to the lyrics. Particularly, the first 4 minutes or so. And remember, we teach kids, not a subject. Our calling is to nurture hope and keep dreams alive. We must see the world through their eyes, not through ours, if we are to meet that calling.
Thank you for allowing me to be part of this special place, and for letting me do my part as we all matter in the lives of our students.
And may we always hear the Children of Sanchez.”
And so it goes…