Making a Difference Only a Teacher Can Make

By June 8, 2015Uncategorised
We would like to thank Russ Simpson from Walnut Grove Secondary School for giving us permission to share a letter he recently wrote to his colleagues. And a sincere thanks to Michelle Wood, the VP at Walnut Grove for knowing how much we would appreciate what Russ had to say. We hope you are as moved as we were by his words. 

We would like to wish Russ all the very best as he moves into a new phase of his career. We truly believe that  great teachers never really retire, they always find a way to make a difference. Please note that “Tara’s” name has been changed at Russ’ request. 
So let’s hear from Russ:

I recently attended a retirement party, something I rarely do.  I find goodbye to be one of the hardest things to say.  I kind of felt obligated to show up for this one though, given that it was for me.  I listened to many accolades, from staff both present and past that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, from family and friends, and from a myriad of students (past and present) that have left many a deep impression on my heart and memory.  There were a couple of letters, one read publicly and one handed to me privately, that touched me so deeply that I’m still reeling a bit several days later.  I believe there are good lessons for all of us in those letters.  I want to write a bit about the public letter today.
            In her letter Tara, my long since graduated student, described the impact I had on her, and made me sound like a truly gifted and wonderful teacher.  Ah, if only.  I do believe that being a teacher is one of the most rewarding, demanding, and important jobs that one can have in our society.  Consider for a moment.  Parents let go of their children and hand them over to us, entrusting us with their care, safety, and guidance.  It is a truly awesome responsibility, and one that cannot truly be 
fathomed until you have children of your own.  When you have to watch your own child walk away 
from you into the care of others you will understand.  Being a teacher means, to me, always trying to remember that my students are children given into my care.  I feel honored and grateful that I am allowed to share in the enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, and drive of these young people.  They also keep me well grounded.  I think I am a wonderful teacher?  That I do a brilliant job of getting kids to listen or cooperate?  I think I can manage or control my students?  Hah! It doesn’t take long for me to begin having to eat crow while I attempt to scrape up a bit of my deflated ego after it has been shredded by my students.  I well remember one of my conversations with Tara after she had elected to miss a couple of classes.  I thought our little serious talk went particularly well, and I was confident that I wouldn’t have to worry about any more absences for a least a couple of weeks.  What actually happened was that she left my room and made a straight line march up to Starbucks, where she spent the next few hours commiserating with a couple of her buddies on the unfairness of Mr. Simpson’s expectations.    Looking back now, I can see this behaviour for what it was:  a faith that whatever she did, she would be able to return and get forgiveness and acceptance. 

            Understand that while I see my job as teaching, I firmly believe it is not what I teach, but how I teach that makes the difference.  I see ‘prescribed learning outcomes’ as a means to an end, not the end itself.  It is the vision we have of our students (things like lifelong learners, honest and knowledgeable citizens, compassionate and caring individuals, etc.) that I believe is important.   In her letter, Tara says, “You were our constant.  You took us for the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You believed in us.  How many times did you hear the words “I don’t care?”.  You showed us how to care.  You…. taught us love and how to be loved.. even when we had nothing to give in return.”  She does not thank me for teaching her math skills, helping her with her science, or helping her complete her many English assignments, but for showing tolerance, patience, and persistence.   I wish I could say I do this most of the time.  I can’t.  I don’t.  I need to constantly work at listening to my students – not their words, but their emotions, – to gauge what they need, what they can cope with, and how far I dare prod or push them in the direction I want them to head.  Some days I do a good job, others, not so well.
            Many of our students have difficult challenges to overcome before they can grow into that envisioned adult.  Some have dysfunctional family situations or backgrounds; some are coping with split families, illness, the loss of family members or friends, poverty, and other situations beyond their control. Some struggle to overcome learning disabilities, mental illness, or anxiety issues.  Others try to balance competing interests such as sports, music, jobs, or other activities with the demands of school.  On top of all that we have the normal teenage challenges of emerging sexuality, desire for independence, and emotional instability that comes with rapid changes in development.  Our challenge is to help them not only cope with their personal challenges and difficulties, but at the same time help them learn, grow, and become the kind of adult we envision for them.  How we meet this challenge provides our students with the models of how we want them to handle theirs.  Warning a student he will fail is neither a threat nor an inducement to try harder when the student already thinks he’s a failure.  Threatening with poor marks doesn’t mean anything to a student that doesn’t have any confidence they can earn good marks.  Sending a student to the office or giving detentions or other consequences to try and ‘force’ them to learn or behave generally only reinforces the belief they have that they are not valued, liked, or wanted.  And trust me on this, a student that doesn’t feel valued, liked, and wanted is not going to acquire any of the ‘prescribed learning outcomes’.  On Friday, one of my young men arrived in my room last period, angry at his teacher, and angrily stating that he wasn’t going to do anything else but just wanted to go home.  When I enquired, he admitted that he had been talking in class and not working, but added that the real problem was that his teacher ‘hates me’.  I started to go into my blunt assessment of the problem and what needed to be done, but.. still thinking about that letter, and mindful that I could almost  see the walls going up, I managed to stop and think.  I was dealing with a stressed fourteen year old boy on a sunny Friday afternoon who at that moment was done with school.   I finally commented that “It is hard to concentrate in last period on a Friday isn’t it.”  He looked at me and nodded. 
            “And first thing in the morning.”  He added.  He then sighed, and went a bit further: “ And before lunch, and after lunch…”  At that point I just laughed and asked him what I could do.  He dragged out his books and offered that ‘maybe’ he should just get his work done. 
 In her letter Tara thanked me for, “.. showing up and being there, even on the days we didn’t deserve it.”  I believe our students don’t have to earn or deserve our compassion or support. We have an obligation to look beyond the student as they are now, and help them grow into the what and who they can be.   She ended the letter by saying, “So many of your students fought to be the people they are.  Thank you for teaching us how to fight.  Thank you for fighting with us.”  Again, I think that is my job.  I share these words so I can remind you to keep your eye on the real goal:  that vision of our students as adults.  It is sometimes hard not to take personally the actions of a frustrated or hurt young teen, but it is necessary.  Be patient, be kind, and be persistent.  May you all have many students who will remember you the way Tara remembers me. 

Russ Simpson
Walnut Grove Secondary School

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