Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Teacher's High

“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessing in disguise.”

- Oscar Wilde

Remember my post about the student I got to know during a field trip? After that trip, his work ethic did NOT improve. On the contrary, he did less than ever. Nothing I tried made a difference.

His M.O. would be to sit there and do nothing at best or to look for excuses to walk around and disrupt others at worst. As soon as he’d try to sidetrack my class, I’d send him out of the room for a break. I was frustrated.

A few days before Christmas break I’d finished a discussion with the class. They were supposed to have their notebooks and textbooks open to answer questions. When I reached this student, he was perusing the pages of an atlas.

“That’s not what we’re doing now,” I said, removing the offending material. I stood above him until he pulled out his books and pencil from his backpack. When I checked on him again, he’d done nothing. I directed his eyes to the paragraph where he could find the first answer. A few minutes later, I looked for progress and found none. Aggravated, I called his mother and left a message on her answering machine.

When I turned around, he was picking up items on the teacher’s desk and talking to another student.

“You can decide you don’t want to work, but you’re not disrupting other students.”

He marched out of the classroom.

The most diligent student in the class stood up and pleaded with me. “He has a hard home life. He needs someone to sit with him and help with the work.”

I sighed. “I know he does, but so do a lot of people in this class. He can’t try only when I sit with him.”

Then I asked my recently acquired Special Ed teacher (I have her three classes per week) to keep an eye on the students. I walked over to the student in the hallway standing at a window.

“Is something bothering you.”


“Do you want to talk about it?”


“Do you have someone you can talk to about it?”


“Do you want to have someone to talk to about it?”


I hesitated before speaking again.

“The thing is, if you’re not happy at home then school should be a refuge. When I was young, I had problems at home and school became my refuge. But if you’re not doing work in your classes, then you’re butting heads with your teachers and you have no refuge.”

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at me.

“When we went on that field trip, I had a good time talking to you. I liked getting to know you. It was a nice change from reprimanding you when you don’t get your work done.”

He snuck a glance at me.

“I want you to know, I’m here. I’m in my office early everyday. If you ever want to come in to catch up on work or have me explain material you don’t understand, then come in. Or just hang out. That’s fine. I can even stay after school if I make arrangements.”

I patted his shoulder just as the bell rang.

When I returned to the classroom as the students left, I told the Special Ed teacher what I’d told the student. She sort of cheered me up by telling me he didn’t do work in any of his classes.

The next day, I spotted the student coming down the hallway. Usually he meanders with a frown. This particular morning he smiled at me.


I had the group again last period. When I finished our discussion, I told the students to open their textbooks and notebooks to answer the three questions. Because it was the last day before break, I’d given all the students an incentive - as each student finished, s/he’d get a piece of candy.

When I checked on the student who hadn’t been working the previous day, he said, “Can I sit in your office and answer the questions?”

My office is next to this classroom. I’ve sent him in there before, but he’s never actually completed any work in there. But I said, “Sure.”

A few minutes later, he left my office and brought his notebook to me. THE QUESTIONS WERE COMPLETED.

I beamed. “You are the first person to get candy.”

Then I showed his work to another teacher, who in turn complimented him.

I said, “Since you’re done, would you like to look through the atlas?”

He leafed through it for a few minutes and then talked to the teachers in the room about constellations. Animated. Happy.

"I've been trying hard all day. I even did work in Science for the sub," he explained near the end of class.

“Remember this feeling,” I said. “When we come back from break, don’t lose this momentum.”

I don’t run. I’ve heard of runner’s high, but I’ve never experienced it. I hate running so much I doubt the existence of a “runner’s high”. But at that moment and for the rest of the day, even as my head nestled into my pillow, I was on a teacher’s high.

I’m not naïve. This isn’t one of those movie moments when the teacher changes a student’s life irrevocably. But that day he changed mine. From the experience, I realized how important teaching is to me. The students’ lives are woven with my life whether I want them to be or not. It’s not just about material content and state standards. It’s relationships.


  1. I think you're wrong. You DID change his life. You reached out. You connected. You gave him something he probably never gets.

    I hope he hangs on to that feeling and to your words. They'll be a light when everything else is dark.

    School was my refuge, too. I had to bury any words of approval deep inside of me because I'd be punished for doing well. This boy may have to hide your words away, but I'll bet he'll hang on to the for life.

    Ah, this brought out my tears :)

  2. You mastered that situation wonderfully and how thrilling to go into the holidays on a teacher high! Isn't it amazing how letting a child know you care and like them can seem so simple and even insignificant but it can be one of the most impactful parts of successful teaching and learning.

  3. Well done, Theresa! Thank you for sharing your progress and I hope to read more posts like this in the months to come. So exciting!

  4. Sounds like you've just been given a reality check; cashable in selfconfidence.
    Just the thing to get over spots of doubt. : j
    Perfect way to start a new year.

  5. You said just the right things to him. This is so heartwarming and incidents like this is why teachers go into teaching.
    Good luck and I hope he continues to grow with your support!

  6. Oh Theresa, how wonderful. You did change his life. You gave him HOPE, something probably no one has ever given him before.

    Hope that someone DOES care about him, that he isn't a failure (which he proved), that he's worthy.

    Keep on doing what you're doing, it's working. And you'll get to keep that "teacher's high".

  7. This is great! The best part about teaching is letting your students realize you are human, too and that all you really want is to help them. At least this student knew that for one day because of you.

    What a wonderful story!

  8. There's a lovely saying about teaching that goes something like this, "Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence ends." I guess the same goes for the effect that students have on teachers as well.

    It takes so much effort to stop being the boss and become the guide.... especially when you have 28 or so other students vying for your attention. I loved reading this post, Theresa. I had been wondering what had happened with this particular student since you last mentioned him.

    You're a star!

  9. What a wonferful moment and a great revelation. THIS is why teaching is incredible -- and I believe you DID make a difference.

  10. That's awesome! It must be so hard not to take out frustrations on students that are trying so hard to bait you. Here's to hoping he's turned a corner!

  11. I'm sure you did change his life. It's a truly wonderful thing that happened!

  12. Oh Theresa Milstein!! I am so so so so so so sooooooooo glad you are there for this student! You know it only takes one - ONE - adult to make a difference in a young person's life between taking the wrong turning or choosing a positive route. I am so so so so happy for you, I truly am! You know you are a teacher and a writer and a true artist at heart and by golly you make a difference where it truly matters!!!

    I'm just so got everything crossed for your relationship with this student to flourish!! Yay!!

    I hope you and your family had a GREAT Christmas and holiday break! Take care

  13. A lesson we should all take note of. Reaching out, connecting and together achieving everything.

    Good Job my friend! :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  14. What a wonderful story. Thank you on behalf of all the students who needed (or need) a teacher to stop and really TALK to them.

  15. What a beautiful post. Congrats on being such an inspiration, to your students and to me.

    Happy New Year!

  16. Theresa, that is so wonderful, it doesnt have to be a movie moment. He smiled, and we all get tears in our eyes. What a feeling! I want to email your post to Oprah or somebody, hope you had a wonderful Christmas.

  17. That's what it's all about, isn't it?

  18. Good for you! Kids in those kinds of situations need consistent support and encouragement - even when they're driving you batty! :)

  19. What a great story! Don't sell yourself short, it's amazing how many things teachers say that stick with you:) I still remember my favorite teachers, I'm sure this boy will always remember you.

  20. How wonderful that you were able to work with this student. It does sound like he's going through some stuff at home, but there's only so much you can do if he won't open up to you. But it sounds like he's trying, and that's great. I think he could tell that you care about him, and that made all the difference.

  21. How wonderful that you managed to break through his defences!

    You'll definitely make a change in his life.

  22. Hi Theresa .. that's wonderful and great that you felt able to be persistent and gentle with him .. I'm so pleased for him and for you.

    Congratulations and long may it last .. enjoy this week with the family .. Hilary

  23. What a perfect way to end the year. I have to say I think you did change his life, as well as changed yours. Teachers are powerful beings and they hold one key ingredient that most people don't... They never give up.

    You are a wonderful teacher and a wonderful person. Both of those things helped you see differently and take that extra step, the different approach to not only change yourself but change him.

    I have to say I am a runner (and I love it) and it feels exactly how you describe. The high you get from running (teaching) is unlike any other. Those are the moments to live for.

    You made me a better person by posting this. Thank you. Happy 2011! Can't wait to see you around the bend!

  24. @ The Words Crafter, how sad you'd be punished for doing well. Students deal with so many things their teachers don't know about.

    @ Deborah, it was a good feeling. When I return to school, I'll see how I do when I have to face new challenges.

    @ Jamie, thanks. It was exciting.

    @ Alesa, I hope the student returns to school with his new attitude. I'm going to try to return with mine.

    @ Kelly, it's amazing how much stuff I wind up doing on the fly whether it's standing before the students and figuring out an academic or behavioral challenge, or talking to a student individually. There are so many things I wish I could redo, so it was nice to have a success.

    @ Anne, I hope he still has hope. I'll find out on Monday.

  25. @ Tiffany, you are right. Especially in middle school, it needs to be more than about academics. It's a funny balance to strike.

    @ Clutterbug, I like that quote. It's true - not only did particular teachers inspire me with their words, but a few of their teaching styles have influenced mine.

    @ Talli, when teaching goes well, it is amazing. It's those other days...

    @ Vicki, it is hard not to take the bait. When a student acts out, I try to remember it's coming from somewhere while trying not to tolerate it.

    @ The Golden Eagle, I hope so. We'll see. This age group is all about fluctuation in behavior.

    @ Old Kitty, I hope it's a new start from him to and not just a hiccup from the same old, same old. But if I could get through to him once, I should be able to again.

  26. @ Jules, when I reached out I'm glad I was able to connect on some level.

    @ JEFritz, thank you. I'm sure there will be more talks in my future.

    @ Nicole, thank you. Happy new year to you too.

    @ Brigid, I'm glad you were moved by the story. I bet Oprah gets way better stories than mine! But soon she'll have a whole network to fill. ; )

    @ Liz, it really is.

    @ Jemi, yes. It's like testing toddlers. Yes, I still love you but I'm not tolerating the behavior.

  27. "Real Teachers" are a rare breed. What that student is learning may falter but it will return to him throughout life. I know. I was that student.

  28. @ Erica, I hope you're right. I have some sense of what he's up against.

    @ Neurotic Workaholic, I hope it continues to make a difference. I'll see on Monday. If not, I'll have to think of another way to reach him.

    @ Nas, thanks. I hope so.

    @ Hilary, thanks. I'm trying to enjoy the break and not think about school so much. Easier said than done!

    @ Jen, you make me blush. When I hear other teachers disparage these students it make me cringe. If we don't see these kids as people, how can we reach them?

    Happy 2011 to you too.

  29. @ Mary, thanks for sharing. Sometimes I worry about the students who don't act out. They may be dealing with issues, but don't get the attention or support.

  30. Theresa
    You're brilliant, you dont give up on your students... I know you point out that its not nessecarily a hollywood happy ever after sceanrio but really, really enjoy your teachers high!

    Happy christmas and may the new year bring all you could wish for!

  31. Thank you for sharing this with us, Theresa. Having taught before, I can understand how hard it is change a student, and I think you have definitely touched him through reaching out when nobody else did. I'm sure it left an impression. I'm hoping he'll be equally hardworking after the holidays!

  32. @ Words A Day, those movies make it all seem so easy. But I'll enjoy my small victories.

    Happy new year to you too.

    @ Emy, I hope there's still an impression when we return to school next week too!

  33. oh, Theresa! What a wonderful story and what a wonderful thing you did reaching out to this student. You're a great teacher, and you're making a huge difference in these kids' lives.

    Keep it up! Happy New Year~ :o) <3

  34. @ LTM, thanks. I hope I'm as good as you guys keep telling me. ; )

  35. You sound like such a wonderful teacher! I hope this student can keep his momentum going, and I'm glad he's got someone like you who cares enough to make the extra effort for him.

    Happy New Years to you!

  36. Hi,

    Thanks for dropping by my New Year blog post.

    Re this post: I see mutual gain from the whole episode, and where it could have all gone awry instead it came right with caring attention! Happy New Year all round!


  37. @ Susan, I hope the student can keep this momentum going too. I'll find out in a few days. Where did this vacation time go?

    Happy New Year to you too!

    @ Francine, I'm glad it didn't go awry. There are students who refuse to work but I don't always reach them. I'm going to try harder.

  38. Wow that is brilliant! You gave that student a window through which to climb, when all the doors in his life seemed shut! That must have given you a buzz as you say. HAPPY NEW YEAR! :O)

  39. Wow, Theresa!! This is so nice to hear! I'm glad you were able to reach out to him. I wish I could reach my students like that -- it will come in time. Great job, I'm very impressed!

    Have a happy New Year!!

  40. @ Madeleine, thank you. It was a buzz, which I hope continues when we're back in school.

    Happy New Year to you too!

    @ Shelley, thanks. I'm sure when the opportunity arises, you'll reach your students like that too.

    Happy New Year, Shelley!

  41. Sheer beauty! I hope this student has found his refuge now. I'm sure you've changed his life, now if he can only keep that feeling and find his happiness!

    WTG, Theresa. You truly are where you were meant to be. :o)


  42. @ Jackee, thank you. I'll see what happens on Monday. Now I need to get back into the teaching mindset.

    I miss writing, but I'm enjoying teaching too. Most of the time.

  43. How wonderful! As I was reading this, I was thinking that the kid is just dying for attention, and you did such a beautiful job of giving him just the right kind.

  44. @ Missed Periods, he probably is dying for attention. Tomorrow is the first day back, and I'm wondering how he will be.

  45. Theresa,
    This was a great post, very moving. You did a wonderful thing that day. And even if it wasn't a 'movie moment,' it was a moving moment which I'm sure he'll remember.

  46. @ Judy, thanks. While he didn't come in with the same enthusiasm (nor did most of the reset of the class), I was able to get him to do something near the end.

  47. From one teacher (high school, 11 years) to another: GOOD JOB.

  48. @ Steven, thank you. He was up to his old issues yesterday, so now I need to figure out something else.