If I fail them, then I fail at life.
My work had become just that serious. I opened my classroom door to the faces of five seven-year-olds waiting for their first glimpse of “teacher,” post-Winter Break. They scrambled in, hung their backpacks on their hooks, got out their materials for the day, and took their seats. Learning to execute just those things had taken us until the end of September to perfect. Amazingly, after a one-month vacation, my students remembered our morning routine and did it flawlessly. Even as the rest staggered in, not a single child went looking for a pencil, forgot his or her holiday “get-smart” homework packet, or asked me to read the directions for the beginning activity. The room was silent. And as they diligently wrote in their journals, I monitored them, doing my best to choke back the tears.
The pride I felt in that moment fueled my commitment to teach for the next eighteen months. My December holiday had been spent analyzing reading unit assessments, math performance projects, and writing samples. The results showed phenomenal growth. My class of predominantly African-American and Latino children had improved an entire grade level in literacy in only five month’s time. These students had transformed into a new group of children now infused with perhaps the greatest source of renewable energy any child has available to him: the motivation to succeed. That January, I knew I had to do everything I could to prepare them for our first high-stakes standardized test in April.
Those first moments still resonate deeply with me. Each day, my students “got smarter” because I taught through their deficiencies and beyond my own self-expectations. We strengthened one another: they worked hard to learn because I worked hard to teach. I saw myself in their little minority faces and knew they needed to see an African-American woman working just as hard for each of them. By the end of my two years, my two separate classes outperformed projections for their underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds.