The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned from Teaching
Author's Note: No students’ names are used and all anecdotes have been altered slightly in order to protect the identities of my students.
I love my job. I am an English teacher at a public high school in Northwest Arkansas. Now that I’m a few years in I can say with absolute certainty something I always suspected: teaching is a calling.
When I started teaching and it became clear that I was incredibly passionate about it, my mom would tell me how teaching is a calling, and clearly I was “called.” She said it proudly, like I should feel chosen. And of course my mom is proud of me...she’s my mom, it’s what moms do. I appreciate and need that encouragement, but one thing I’ve learned doing what I do is that a calling - no matter what kind - is not something to brag about. It’s less that I was “chosen” by God to teach teenagers the finer art that is appreciating literature (HA! Right...) because of my many talents (again...HA! Right…), and more that I was tasked by God to do everything I can to love a bunch of bratty, immature, arrogant, adorable, kind, intelligent, personable, fun-loving, vivacious, young, almost-adults. And you can say that I’m exaggerating, but I really do love them. Some of them make me want to pull my hair out, crawl into the fetal position, and cry under my desk all afternoon, but I love even those.
I don’t mind admitting to you that I’ve led a relatively sheltered life. I grew up in an upper-middle class, white, Southern Baptist family in the South. My parents have been married my entire life. My siblings and I are blessed.
Obviously college and early adulthood introduced me to people and situations outside of what I would’ve called the norm, but nothing could have prepared me for the craziness that exists in some of my students’ lives. I’ve always had a “tough love” mentality. If you make a stupid decision, you have to pay the consequences. And I still believe that. Part of my job is to teach kids to make smart decisions: turn your homework in on time, be respectful, show up to class when you are supposed to, be responsible. I’m a tough teacher and my students will vouch for that, but - and maybe this is amplified because I am at a public school - teaching has taught me that compassion is one of our most valuable traits as humans. I would never have considered myself a compassionate person until I started teaching. When you find out that one of your students has 4 younger siblings he is taking care of because their mom took off with her boyfriend and they aren’t sure when she’s coming home, you start to understand why those essay deadlines are difficult for him to meet, and the “tough love” attitude loses a little of it’s luster. Teaching has forced me to realize that sometimes, people’s situations are just really crappy...and there is nothing they can do about it. It’s not that I didn’t realize that before, but now I really and truly care about what is happening in these kids’ lives. These are no longer stories I hear about, shake my head at, and say “Well, bless their hearts,” and move on. These are real people that I know; teenagers who mean the world to me.
It’s easy to condemn and judge people for certain behavior when you’ve never been around it. It’s easy to say we need to enforce stricter immigration laws when you’ve never met a 16 year old American-born citizen who is living in a girls’ home because her parents we deported and she wants to finish school, get her diploma, then go to college. It’s easy to write off a “pot-head” who’s on probation, until he gives you an analysis of The Raven that reveals his incredible intelligence, and you find out that his brother runs a very successful marijuana store in Colorado - so it’s no wonder he doesn’t see a problem with his abuse of it - and that no one in his family has ever been or even wanted to go to college until him, and that he’s too afraid to admit to them that he does want to go because he doesn’t want his mom to feel guilty that she can’t afford it. Not every kid has a sob story or a sad reason for bad behavior, but most of them do, and I’m embarrassed to admit how much that surprised me.
I’ve seen the damage other kids can do to a girl who makes a mistake, gets pregnant, and has to carry her child like a Scarlet Letter throughout the rest of the school year, only to go into labor the week before finals, ensuring that she will have to attend summer school to keep up. I’ve seen how one mistake - and it doesn’t always have to be the student’s mistake - can compound on itself over and over again until a kid gets trapped in a web that even a fully capable adult wouldn’t be able to get themselves out of. I’ve seen - and yet still can’t imagine - how difficult it is to take a state required standardized test in a language you barely understand because you’ve only been speaking it for a couple of years. I’ve seen a girl struggle with wanting to be a boy, who was harassed so much she attempted suicide, and my heart was broken because I know the cure for her confusion but she wants nothing to do with it since the “Christian” kids are the ones who treated her so terribly.
I’ve seen my kids struggle through obstacles that many of us have never had to struggle through. I’ve seen them persevere and succeed and my heart soars. But I’ve also seen them stumble and fall over and over again, trying and trying to find a way out of the mire that’s sucking them down only for their struggle to pull them in deeper. I’ve seen them fail, become discouraged, and refuse to pick themselves back up. Sometimes it’s their fault...but sometimes it’s not, and either situation breaks my heart in a way that I didn’t know it was capable of.
Of all these, the most important lesson that teaching has taught me about faith is love and compassion; the difference those things can make. I’ve gotten just a tiny glimpse of the love Christ feels for me and for everyone else. And I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s crippling. Of course, it’s also beautiful and humbling, but I never realized how much that kind of compassion can hurt. And it’s ridiculous that I didn’t realize that considering the agony Jesus had to endure because of his love and compassion for me. He sees all of our struggles; the struggles we create ourselves and the external struggles we have no control over. He sees our mistakes, our failures, and the darkest corners of our hearts that we refuse to acknowledge even to ourselves. He sees it all and he loves us anyway. He died for us anyway. He looks at us and he doesn’t see a screw up or a lost cause, he sees someone who is worth something; someone worth giving his own life for. He saw all of that before any of us ever accepted him. He knew some of us wouldn’t and he did it anyway. Teaching is giving just a sliver of insight into what it means to have the love and compassion of Christ, and I feel like the Grinch when he realizes what Christmas is all about; my heart has grown at least 3 sizes.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it hurts. Yes, sometimes it feels like it’s not worth it and I get discouraged. But more than that, it is fulfilling, it is incredibly humbling, and it has made me a better person and a better Christian.
Rachel-Claire Cockrell is a wife, a writer, and a high school English teacher. She is passionate about her students and does her best to exemplify the love of Christ to those kids who may not experience it anywhere else. She and her husband live in Arkansas. Follow her blog at http://rachelclaireunworthy.blogspot.com/ or on Facebook.