Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why I Teach

I recently had the opportunity to talk to the teachers new to our district about why I teach and why I teach at Union Public Schools.  I was originally going to try to write this in blog form (versus speech form), but my brain has made all its allowable decisions because...August.  So I’m leaving the speech as-is below:

I’ve been asked to talk to you about why I teach and why I teach at Union. And I’ll be honest, this intimidates me a bit because even though most of you are new to Union; many of you are not new to teaching. Many of you should be telling me why you teach and yet here we are. So bear with me and grant me grace. 

The first thing I want to say, whether this is your first year or thirtieth or somewhere in between, is thank you. Thank you for choosing this profession and thank you for choosing Union. The sacrifice it takes to be an Oklahoma public educator is not lost on me.

I am big on stories and backgrounds, so I’ll start with a bit about my family. I married my college sweetheart, Brett, who also works for Union. He’s one of four CPAs on the finance side and manages the payroll department here. Brett is the ever-calm to my constant state of heightened emotional frenzy.  I swear the man can defuse any situation in 7 seconds flat.  He is able to negotiate peace in just about any circumstance, which comes in handy these days as we find ourselves attempting to parent a 3.5-year-old, Jonas.  Jonas is our sweet miracle baby, who--like all three-year-olds-- keeps us on our toes and teaches us about love and patience on the daily. Jonas has also convinced me that no matter what age you are, we as humans can be simultaneously ingenious...and completely inept. For example, Jonas—for the life of him—cannot throw overhand.  He can be given extremely clear directions (“Put the ball in both your hands; put your hands over your head; drop the ball.”) and he still can’t quite manage it.  But the same kid can categorize cars by make and model no matter the color, year, or angle he’s looking from.

I’ve found my high schoolers are not too different.  I’ve caught calculus students taking out a calculator to multiply by one “just to check.”  “Just to check”?  Just to check what?  That one is the still the multiplicative identity?  That the foundation of our number system hasn’t changed since yesterday?  I don’t know.  Yet these same kids figure out the security guards’ schedule after the second week of school so they know when to park where so as to avoid a parking ticket. 

Smart when they want to be. 

These same smart cherubs figured out that our district-wide goal—100% graduation, 100% college- career-ready—could be used in their benefit too. “What are you gonna do, fail me?” I’ve heard. “100% graduation, remember?”


In the spirit of transparency: I was not too into our goal for a couple years. 

And then I heard this story, which I had heard dozens of times before. It’s about this shepherd who has a hundred sheep. He loves his sheep. One day, he realizes one of the sheep is missing so he leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one lost sheep. When he finally finds it, he’s so overcome with joy and emotion that he drapes it across the back of his shoulders  He carries it this way--much like you would a toddler-- all the way home.  Once home, he runs to tell his family friends, “I found her!  My sheep was lost and now she’s found.” 

Look, I don’t know if that sheep wanted to be found or not. Maybe she was having a grand time on the mountain by herself. But the message of this story really helped me have a paradigm shift regarding our mission.  It helped me understand that “100%” is less about grades and more about people.  It helped me not only buy into our mission but embrace it. I now embrace the idea that we don’t leave anyone behind. I embrace the idea that every kid is worth finding and bringing home to the fold. And maybe most importantly, I embrace the idea that ninety-nine is not good enough. Now, that doesn’t mean we lower our standards; that absolutely does not mean we just put a passing grade in, because sometimes—quite frankly—kids also need to be allowed to fail safely. But that does mean that we personalize education here at Union—we meet kids where they’re at. That phrase “set the bar high and students will rise to your expectations”? It doesn’t sit well with me. Because it gives no allowances for stories and for backgrounds. Listen, there have been days when I wanted to chew a student out for earning a B while also doing a happy dance that a different kid made a D on the exact same assessment.  Kids deserve unique goals because kids are unique. They’re unique in their stories, their backgrounds, their current struggles, and their dreams. 

The reason I love working here at Union is because this is a district that understands that. My admin has had my back every single time I’ve said,  “Help me understand this story; help me personalize a plan.” I’m always expected to be a part of that plan to bring the student back to the fold, but I never, ever have to go it alone here at Union. I want to emphasize that. You are not alone here. Find those people who will support you and cling to them.  Mrs. Witcher was my principal my first year teaching here and I have clung to her ever since. I still call her when I need advice or just need to vent. And I know I can do so without judgement. Find your tribe and cling to them. 

Speaking of Mrs. Witcher, I remember when we built this beautiful addition that we’re sitting in now and she said to us, “One of the reasons we build amazing facilities like this one is because we believe all kids should feel proud of where they go to school.” And that statement there is so central to why I love teaching here. Here, we believe all kids should feel dignified when receiving their education. We believe that buildings like this tell our kids, “You are worth it. You are worth it whether you’re rich or poor. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. You are worth it whether you live on the south side or the north side. You are worth it whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or you just got here. Welcome. These rooms were built for you. Our arms are open wide. Welcome to the fold.  Everyone’s in.  We don’t close our doors to anyone.”

Now when you look at our beautiful buildings, you may think we’re a pretty wealthy district.  We get lumped into the same category as Jenks, Bixby, and Owasso frequently.  The reality is that, on average, our families make $30,000 less each year than those that attend Jenks, Bixby, and Owasso.  $30,000 less every year.  And I have nothing but respect for those districts; I have dear friends who teach and send their kids there. But I mean just the fact that we get lumped in with those other schools is a testament to this district.  I’m here to tell you though:  not only do we get “lumped” with these schools, we are the district that often leads the charge.  Did you know you can take Differential Equations at Union High School?  That’s the class you take after Calculus 1, 2, and 3 all of which we also offer on campus.  Did you know you can get medical help if you live in the Union district?  Affordable healthcare.  Our national Congress can’t even figure it out.  But our district has.  Because, yes, we know education is a key out of poverty, but how can you educate the mind if the body hurts?  So accessible, affordable healthcare is made available to our community members.  Did you know that Union students can graduate with two degrees--an associates and a high school degree at no cost to them?  Did you know that we offer after-school music lessons to kids who can’t afford in-home private lessons? 

Occasionally people will tell me, “Union’s population has really changed the last ten years.”

And I always reply, “That’s true.  And we’re better for it.”

We may not have parents who can donate two million dollars to build a new STEM lab, but I’m ok with that.  It allows our kids see the intentionality with which we build, the care and the stewardship.  

That’s why I chose to pursue teaching and specifically chose to cultivate my craft at Union.  I chose teaching because I felt public education empowers, enlightens, and liberates. Everyone has a seat at the table. Everyone gets access to quality learning. That’s the script—that’s the calling—I chose. One of inclusion. One of love. One where everyone’s in. One that seeks to eliminate marginalization and end generational poverty through education.

The reason I teach is that I want to add value and dignity to students, sometimes for the first time in a long time. Sometimes just when they need it most. [1]I teach because of Cara, who lost her mom in elementary school and has since lived with her alcoholic dad and step-mom, the latter of which doesn’t speak to Cara. But Cara told me that the silver lining in all of this is that she was able to attend Union Public Schools. And that even though her childhood has been bleak; her adulthood is promising, due to the opportunities afforded to her through Union. Cara is will most likely be one of our National Merits this year. I teach because of Andrew, who struggled so deeply with depression and anxiety that he tried to take his own life. But courageous Andrew reached for help. And now he is a vocal proponent of mental healthcare, especially as it relates to teenagers. I teach because of Shirin. Just two years ago, Shirin was in a different district where she was bullied because of the color of her skin. No one looked like her at her old school so certain students thought that gave them right to be cruel. Shirin was bullied so severely that her mom pleaded for a transfer to Union, even though they didn’t live within our boundaries. The transfer was granted. Now Shirin has friends that look like her, and don’t look like her, who welcomed her with open arms. I teach because of Seth, who wants to be a high school math teacher when he grows up. 

I try to live by two philosophies: (1) there’s no such thing as someone else’s kid and (2) there’s a reason each kid on my roster is on my roster. That does not magically make it easy to like every single one of them. The veteran teachers can back me up on this: some of your kids are going to be hard to like (and they will probably manage to have perfect attendance).  But those are also the kids who need you the most. I will admit: there have been days in the past—and there will be days to come—when I didn’t want to step foot in my own room...because of that parent phone call or that situation blew up...and I just didn’t want to deal with him or see her again. But I’ll also say this:  somehow, those kids became some of my favorites. 

And that’s up to us: we write that narrative. We can continue to let that annoyance or even hurt fester inside us, or we can decide: I’m going to speak truth into this life. I’m going to be the adult who sees the good in this child, even when he doesn’t even see it himself: I will choose to see it and pull it out. I will be the adult who pleads the cause of my students, even when they’re too mad, too hurt, too exhausted, too overwhelmed to plead for themselves. I will be the adult who says, “Oh you can and WILL be someone great—someone who adds to, and not subtracts from, to our community.” I’ll be the adult who says, “The chains break here. You are free. Free to be yourself. You’re safe in my room. You belong just as you are. You matter. You’re here for a reason. You are not an accident. You are mine and I am yours and we are in this together.”

And some will respond right away and others won’t. Some will come with open arms, so ready for that love and others will continue in destructive ways...sometimes even to us as teachers. Sometimes we get hurt as teachers, right? We don’t talk a whole lot about that. But kids can really hurt us.

When that happens, we have a choice: step away and say “Not my problem,” (which I admit I've done my fair share of times) or lean in and remind ourselves: “Ninety-nine is not good enough.”

My utmost desire for you and for me is that this is the year we lean in.

May we see every kid. May we see them for who they were made to be. May we pay special attention to the ones who don’t want to be seen, and to the ones who feel  invisible. May we have the courage to show them—day in and day out—they are more than visible to us. They are our life. 

My hope is that this year you’re able to create a culture--a classroom--that you’re excited to come to and that your students can't wait to be in every day. That the kid who lost his mom this summer feels loved in your room. That the one who struggles with anxiety and self-harm feels worthy in your room. That the one who was bullied last year feels safe. That the shy one feels heard; the loud one belongs. That our labels dissipate and your students become...your kids. 

May this be a year where mutual understanding and learning take place. May we enter not as their saviors but as fellow sojourners. Yes, sojourners who have walked a bit longer, but travelers on the same journey nonetheless.

As one of my favorite writers said, In the end, maybe “we’re all just walking each other home.”

[1] Names and certain details of students have been altered to protect their privacy.