Every teacher has seen these two films. If you haven’t, park yourself in front of the TV and prepare for inspiration.
What they share is easy to discern: the impact that great teachers can have on the lives of our students. How they differ is in the mode of delivery and the socioeconomic status of the student body.
I began my career in education in a prestigious English department in a college-prep academy. How I got the job as a baby straight out of a teacher certification program is still a mystery to me, but we’ll chalk it up to my interview skills and ability in literature for the time being. The vast majority of my students came from upper-class families. Their entire lives had been filled with every opportunity, but most importantly, they came from families who expected greatness from and believed in their children.
For those four years, I shared in their greatness. I shaped young writers who were already gifted and merely needed a bit of guidance. Our class discussions were mature and fruitful; their analysis of literature was pointed and complex. The recipients of my letters of recommendation included all the Ivys. My graduates walked the hallowed halls of Stanford, Harvard, Brown, and MIT. These children have grown into careers that quadrupled my measly teacher salary upon college graduation. Rightfully so, they are the leaders of America now, most of them in their mid-to-late 20s.
In that setting, I taught college-level work to college-prepared students. Subconsciously, I considered myself elite as well. Though I did not hold the title of “college professor,” I taught like one.
After four years, familial obligations drew me back to my hometown in Southeast Texas. The only job I could find at the time was at a small-town rural high school in a city steeped in generational poverty and racial unrest.
I remember the interview and the job offer quite well to this day. I drove up to a one-story campus littered with portable buildings and shabby paint, a far cry from the university-like modern oasis I had left behind. The principal, a young man who fervently wished to change the perspective of his hometown, offered me the position of STAAR remedial English and English II Level. I remember feeling deflated. This position was so far beneath me, an AP English teacher, that the only motivation I had to accept the job was my need for a paycheck. I moved into a dungeon with no windows in a room that, more often than not, smelled like mold and mildew.
My student demographic shifted as well. The elite, college-bound students I left behind were replaced with students who read at a third grade level, students whose main goal in life was to merely graduate high school and go work in the family business, in the oilfields, or at the local refinery. Reading great works of literature did not matter so much as simply reading.
I had, without knowing it, become one of least favorite minor characters in one of my favorite books: Miss Caroline in To Kill A Mockingbird. There I was, with my big-city expectations, trying to teach “imaginative literature” to students who were “immune” to it because they had “chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they could walk.” A dramatic comparison, sure, but one that resonated quite deeply with me. I had to learn to reach a student body focused on necessity and survival, not privilege and opportunity.
Some of my students couch-surfed. Some lived in run-down trailers with holes in the roof. Many came from single-mother households, and others desired to continue the endless generational cycle of teenage pregnancy. Quite a few of my girls’ backstories included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Many of my boys sold drugs to make ends meet. I don’t want my readers to assume that all my students came from this demographic – certainly, I taught many middle-class students as well – but for the first time in my life, I had to face the fact that a large swath of my students needed something more than English, and I had to teach it without the infinite amount of resources and support to which I had become accustomed.
My motto for teaching had always been “Character before content,” i.e. “I must be able to reach the character of the student before I can teach the content of my course.” I fine-tuned this into an art at that rural high school, and while I had played “counselor” at my college-prep academy, I mostly listened to issues of unrequited love and discussed which prestigious university housed the best pre-law programs. Suddenly, my hat rack grew exponentially: I became counselor, parent, therapist, life coach, big sister. I internalized many of their struggles and helped them navigate a winding path to a better future. Teaching literature, my first true love, took a backseat to teaching life. For many of those students, I was the first person to push them towards success.
There were many times I felt like I was “less than,” that I had fallen from a place of high expectations and prestige. It took years to shake that feeling. I am embarrassed of that feeling, now, when I look back on the students I taught and the goals they’ve reached. Other teachers there used to call me an “elitist” because I refused to lower my expectations, but I truly think that pushing my students helped them realize there was a world out there far beyond their small town, just waiting for them to make their mark on it.
After five years at that rural high-school, I moved to the next big city and took a job at a 6A minority-majority school. Suddenly, I went from teaching just white kids to sitting at a United Nations roundtable. I brushed up on simple Spanish terminology. I learned to prove myself as a white teacher in a mostly-black classroom. The first week, I asked one of my black male students why he kept replacing the letter ‘c’ in his writing with a ‘k,’ and he informed me that he “didn’t use the letter ‘c’ because he was a Blood and ‘c’ stood for Crip.” I came home and informed my wife that I had become Michelle Pfeiffer and expected to be called “White Bread” soon.
But the absolute game-changer was when I took the normal senior-level British Literature curriculum and threw it straight in the trash, replacing it with an entire year of minority voices. The kids perked up: for once, they could read about people who looked and sounded like them. I had earned my place in their world. It was a successful year until the pandemic screwed us up.
In reality, teenagers are the same across all spectrums: rich or poor, white or black. They are all searching for meaning in their lives, and they are all searching for someone to help them achieve their dreams. I am proud of my students who are graduates of those prestigious universities; I am proud of the burgeoning nurses and teachers who are studying at our local community colleges; I am proud of the young man who went from panhandling under the interstate to make ends meet to a full-ride to Baylor University; I am proud of the minority students who became the first generation in their families to attend college.
I like to think that I have been instrumental in those journeys. This post was inspired by a former student from that college-prep academy of long ago who asked me if I found teaching to be more fulfilling with students who “need” me more than his class did, and the answer is nuanced and complex. At that college-prep academy, I was one of many good teachers; I could be certain that those students received a well-rounded education from numerous teachers who pushed them and believed in them. I can’t say the same for the other districts in which I’ve taught, and for that reason alone, I find comfort and purpose in teaching the socio-demographic that I now find myself in.
Am I a “great” teacher? I will not answer that: it’s not for me to answer. The over fifteen hundred students I’ve taught in my career can answer that question. Does being “great” mean I’ve taught my content area to the best of my ability, or does it mean that I’ve influenced the life of a child and changed the course of his or her trajectory? Twenty years from now, I doubt my students will remember the books I taught in class, but I hope they remember the ways in which I motivated them to be all that they could be. That, to me, is what it means to be a teacher.
After all, what makes Mr. Keating so memorable in Dead Poet’s Society is not the poetry he teaches, but the way in which he inspires his students to break from tradition and become their own men; what makes Ms. Johnson so influential in Dangerous Minds isn’t the poetry, either, but the ways in which she insists on breaking the rules to support her students. Ultimately, a “great” teacher is defined by how much of themselves they’re willing to sacrifice to change the lives of their students.
In that case, I’m all in.