When I first joined Teach For America, I thought I knew why I wanted to teach. Obviously, I wanted to help kids. I wanted to help change students’ life trajectories by influencing their education. I dreamed of having a well-managed, interested and hard-working class where learning was fun everyday. I wanted to be one of those teachers kids look back on and think, “Wow, she really helped me.”
As I get ready to close out my third year of teaching, I realize I still want those things. But I continue to teach for so many more reasons. I don’t teach for a group of children anymore, but instead I teach for each child individually. I play a different role in each of their lives.
First and foremost, I am a teacher, but more often than not, I’m also a coach, an encourager, a role model, an advocate, a disciplinarian, and a voice of reason. All of these roles can be hard, especially in conjunction. And at times they’re so overwhelming that getting out of bed at 5:00 a.m. can be close to impossible.
Yet the rewards of teaching are incomparable to anything else I’ve ever achieved in my life. Watching a 16-year old boy read in English for the first time is unbelievable. Seeing a former student who wasn’t sure three years ago if she’d go to college and then get accepted into nursing school is exhilarating.
These moments are precious, but rare. Yes, there are good things that come every day. However, these epiphanies don’t come at the end of every week, or even every semester. But when they do, they are so empowering that they can keep you motivated and inspired for another year—and maybe more.
Daily, I begged my students to let me help them fill out college applications and stayed up all night to try and create perfect lesson plans. But these were seniors, and I could often tell that my class was the last thing on their minds. Most of the time I felt defeated once I finished teaching their class, but I adored them and wanted to be a good teacher. I exhausted myself trying.
A colleague asked students to write a letter to a teacher who made a difference in their lives and he then delivered them to us. As a first-year teacher, I didn’t know this happened and didn’t really think much of Teacher Appreciation Week. But I received a letter from one of my seniors, Vilma. This was the first letter I ever received from a student.
Vilma was in my English class. Her letter thanked me for all my hard work and for helping her get accepted to college. She was a first-generation college student, and at times it was really overwhelming for her to navigate the application process. She told me she knew the class could drive me crazy, but she appreciated how relentless I was.
At the time, I didn’t think they could tell that I cared, but that letter made everything worth it. All the late nights planning and grading, the meetings and parent calls were worth it when it came to reading this one letter.
I keep this letter in a dresser next to my bed. Many days it’s been the reason I’ve gotten out of bed, along with the other letters I’ve received over the past few years. These rewards have no monetary value, but are irreplaceable. We teachers cherish these mementoes forever. They are what keep us going.