Life in the trenches, a/k/a the classroom, is not for the faint of heart. In previous Bookology articles I’ve shared my take on many of the challenges faced by teachers in today’s educational climate. Lack of meaningful opportunities for the teacher’s voice to be heard, mounting pressure to produce students who perform well on high stakes tests, district mandates to teach from a scripted curriculum, a desire to be all and do all for students, the list goes on and on. And that list can be exhausting. Yet so many of us continue to pursue the sometimes elusive and ultimate goal; to make a positive difference in the lives of our students. At times, it feels like the balance between give and take is incredibly lopsided.
Yes, lopsided. Completely disproportionate. It’s not even a contest when I compare how much my bucket has been filled to the number of buckets I may have filled. You see, in my 30 years as a teacher, the gifts I have received far outnumber those I have been lucky enough to share with others. And so, in the spirit of the season, rather than share a list of what I wish for this Christmas, I invite you to take a peek at the treasures that have been bestowed upon me. The highlights that have inspired me over the years and have kept me going. My gifts from the trenches.
The first category of gifts comes from the reason we all entered the honorable profession of teaching in the first place. The kids. Every single cherub that I’ve encountered on my teaching and learning journey has a place in my heart. However, despite my desire to never play favorites when surrounded by kids in the classroom, I must confess that when I look back, there are some that stand out just a bit more. These kids have provided some of my greatest gifts, my proudest moments and memories as a teacher.
First, there was the sad little guy who had lost his mother as a kindergartener and was often in a fight or flight mode. Yet thanks to a class read-aloud of The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco, he became the driving force behind the “Lemonade Stand Project” my group of first graders launched in an effort to raise money for a very sick boy in our community. Whenever I think back to those busy days with six- and seven-year-olds who were so intent on doing a good deed for someone they didn’t even knows, my heart melts. This extraordinary experience reminds me that when magic happens in the classroom, it most likely does not come from a textbook or piece of curriculum. It comes from the heart and usually the heart of a kid.
Then there was a quiet, freckle-faced, second-grade girl who shined with creativity and kindness yet struggled to read with success. I didn’t know much about dyslexia at the time but my instincts told me I needed to learn more so I could help figure out the source of her difficulties. I found and read the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Yale neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz. I shared the book and my concerns with this bright young lady’s parents who were eager to do whatever they could to help her. That conversation led them to lots of research, a formal diagnosis, and enrollment in a school that specialized in working with dyslexic students. Over the next decade we stayed in touch and I was thrilled to hear of my former student’s continued success. The best gift came when I received this message last spring from that creative and kind young woman:
Hi Mrs. Rome! I hope all is well with you! I just wanted to share some exciting news with you. I have been accepted into a few different graduate schools to earn my Educational Psychology license to become a school psychologist … I think of you and how fortunate I was to have you as my second-grade teacher, and how different my life would have been had I never met you. You changed my life. I don’t think I would be pursuing graduate school, let alone be attending college, had you not suggested that I might be dyslexic …
Words cannot express how much a message like this means to a teacher. Goosebumps and a lump in my throat instantly materialize every time I re-read this message. What a life-changer this future school psychologist and her family were for me. No question that the balance between give and take is lopsided, and this story illustrates just how much one student can give to a teacher.
In addition to gifts from many special kids, I have also been blessed with some of the finest colleagues anyone could ask for. I was a member of one particularly special team that will always have elite status in my book. We dubbed ourselves The Dream Team, not because we wanted to be boastful, but because it was like a dream come true for each of us, to feel such a sense of harmony and collaboration.
Although our time together was far too short, just one school year, it was like nothing I had ever experienced in all my years of teaching. I marvel at the engagement and inspiration our joint efforts created for our students as well for each other. The many gifts that I enjoyed with my Dream Team included:
- a shared commitment to putting kids first
- a mutual love of literacy
- daily “collab time” to share ideas, questions, and concerns
- honest communication
- an abundance of vulnerability and trust
- a desire to learn and grow together
I honestly don’t know if these attributes can be cultivated or if they simply happen when the stars are aligned just so. I do know that it is a rare and beautiful thing to love not only the work you do, but also the people you get to do it with. What a gift these ladies were!
The Authors and their Books
The last of my gifts from the trenches is a tribute to the literacy heroes that have impacted me, both personally and professionally. Much more than just a list of favorite authors and books, these writers and their characters have had a profound effect on my teaching and learning:
- Mo Willems, author of Piggy and Elephant books, changed the way I help kids build foundational skills like decoding and fluency but, more importantly, these playful gems teach us lessons about friendship, loyalty, courage, and fun.
- Patricia Polacco, master storyteller, offers rich tapestries of family traditions, struggles and celebrations, year after year. Thank you, Mr. Falker captures Polacco’s agonizing efforts to learn to read. It is a story that resonates deeply with teachers and is one many kids can relate to.
- Kwame Alexander, legendary poet and wordsmith, brings a level of passion and excitement to a day at school that is beyond one’s wildest expectations. Thanks to a generous grant I received from Penguin Random House and dozens of copies of Crossover donated by Scholastic, my Dream Team and I witnessed the transformative power of a great book, one that actually can change lives.
I must admit that there is one thing that remains on my Christmas wish list. That wish is for every teacher reading this essay to receive his or her own gifts from the trenches. May your kids, your colleagues, and your favorite authors and books, bring you the contentment that comes from knowing you make a difference every single day!