My first First Day of School in front of a classroom came just a few months after my college graduation. I was easily the youngest teacher in the building, barely older than some of my students, but I was confident. The degree that I had received that May endowed me not only with an understanding of planning engaging lessons and managing the behavior of 25 teenagers at once, but also with a particular philosophy. On that first First Day of School, my entire educational worldview was built on a fundamental premise: any student in my classroom could work and speak and think at a high level.
I don’t think this unbridled idealism is bizarre among new teachers. I was taught as much, sometimes implicitly and sometimes openly stated, in my education classes — with the proper mix of high expectations and student support, any barrier to learning could be overcome.
In practice, though, the barriers can be overwhelming. In my school, part of a high need district just south of Boston, I experienced things that I could not have been prepared for with only a theoretical background and a diploma. The 2010 Haitian earthquake was something that I was generally aware of, but now I knew people who had been displaced. The perception of young black people was something that I had discussed in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but now I knew people who could have been those boys. The achievement gap between white and non-white students was something that I had studied in college, but now those data points had faces.
Throughout my first year, as I grappled with reconciling my most basic philosophy with the realities of my classroom, I sought the advice of veteran teachers, both from my school and from outside. In many cases, again sometimes implicit and sometimes openly stated, I heard a similar message. The idea that some students could overcome any challenge was charmingly naive. Over time, I would become more realistic.
I started my third year at the same school this August. Despite the warnings, I am still romantic, still idealistic, still charmingly naive. My philosophy has evolved with experience, but only to include a caveat. Any student in my classroom can work and speak and think at a high level, as long as I don’t give them a choice. By no means am I a perfect teacher. Sometimes I fail in my goal to push my students to the deepest levels of understanding, and sometimes I misjudge what kind of support they need. But on the days that I am best at my job, these young men and women, many of whom have been through more than I could ever imagine, succeed in ways that even they never expected to.
It is my biggest challenge as an educator to maintain this high bar. Every day, it is tempting to reset my sights to the lowest common denominator, to ask my classes to simply parrot back my words and call it learning. But I resist that temptation. Too many times, I have seen them rise to my expectations.
I don’t consider myself a veteran teacher yet, but I will be soon. And, in 5 or 10 or 20 years, should a new teacher with shaken faith seek my advice, I know that I will only have more evidence behind me. The job that we do is too important to sacrifice our ideals.