Sunday, April 28, 2013

12 years of teaching, and it turns out I did drink the Dead Poet's Society/Stand and Deliver/Mr. Holland's Opus/Lean on Me/Dangerous Minds Kool-Aid.
People who go into teaching often have some ridiculous, lofty idea of what they are going to accomplish. These people don't last long. I saw it in NYC- people who thought they were going to "save" the kids in their poor Brooklyn neighborhoods, "save" them from their lives. They were usually gone by Christmas.
I believe that TRUE teachers are able to let go of these dream ideas and concentrate on the impact they can have, on doing the best job they can, on trying to teach the students as much as they can- not just about their subjects, but also about life.

But there's a contradiction here.

Because every teacher, when they're having a bad day, when they've been screamed at by a parent, dumped on by administration, trashed on social media by students, when they feel like they've failed in every way possible, not reached that kid, not reached out, not been more accessible, not done that day to 100% tells them one thing to get through that day-

I make a difference.
I make a difference in the lives of my students.
They will remember me.
I have taught them things that not only help them pass the class/the state exam/the essay but will help them be better people, better mothers and fathers, better friends.
I made them think.
I opened them up to things they had never considered before. 

I'm sure most of us would like to imagine that all of our students, if given the opportunity, would do the following as a way to say goodbye.

This is my 12th year teaching. It is my 9th year at my current school. At roughly 100 students per year, that's over 1,200 students over my career. That's 900 at this school alone. That's not including students in clubs I've sponsored, helped at Saturday School, or extracurricular activities, or coached.

And yet...
I gave notice at my school over a month ago because I'm leaving to pursue my PhD in English Literature. And in that month, I keep coming back to that line-

I make a difference.

But what if it's not true? What if the line that every teacher tells themselves to get through the bad spots, is a lie? Something we've sold ourselves on in order to get up and through the next day?
Because over the last month, this is all that I can seem to think of. Because not a single person seems to care that I am leaving.
Maybe I'm as guilty as those quit-before-Christmas teachers with their idealistic notions. Maybe I did drink the Dead Poet's Society/Stand and Deliver/Mr. Holland's Opus/Lean on Me/Dangerous Minds Kool-Aid.
I want to believe that I was a good teacher. I want to believe that my students left my classroom with an abundance of riches they didn't have before. I'm not naive to think that every student left suddenly loving literature. But I like to think that most left with some little part they will always carry with them.

I had a teacher like that. He was my AP English teacher. He was a Marine sniper. A triathlon athelete. A surfer. And the toughest teacher at school. There was a mythos that surrounded him. He made students cry on a regular basis. I thought he was a god. I survived my first three years teaching in a poorly performing Brooklyn school by channeling him. He told our AP class that none of us would score 5s on the exams, but we still better put the work in.
I got a 5 on my exam. And I think he's also a big reason on my I became a teacher.
I was saddened when he retired the year before I returned home to teach at the high school I attended. I would have loved to have been on staff with him.
When I passed him on the street last year, and he said "Hello, Karra", I had a little fangirl meltdown that he would remember me. It'd been 18 years since I took his class.

So I know there are teachers out there that make that sort of difference.

What has made me sad this past month, is the realization that maybe I'm just not one of them.
I'm not the teacher everyone loves. I'm hard. I expect the best from my students. I expect hard work, and effort. I'm not their friend. I don't care who their parents are, or what their last names are. I care about them, and giving them what they need to succeed in life. I care that they learn to THINK. And question. This year in particular (gotta love social media) has been hard as it's been pointed out to me again and again just how much some students don't like me, my class, or my way of teaching.

But again, I got through this year by coming back to-

I make a difference.

Maybe in the end, it doesn't matter if no one will miss me once I'm gone. Maybe the point is not that I made a difference with them, but that they made a difference with me.

I've had students make my day, make my heart break and then swell with pride, make me a better teacher and person.

So maybe I'll end this year feeling as I do now- that no one will miss me in the great cogs of the machine that education is.

But I can tell you that I will miss every one of my students.
I will miss seeing that kid who never reads, asking me for a book to read, and then watching them read it.
I will miss seeing my students grow, from freshmen year when I teach them, through senior year.
I will miss getting to know the quiet kids.
I will miss seeing them walk across the stage at graduation, and knowing what an epic battle it was for some of them.

So to all 1200+ of my students, past and present, I want to say thank you.
Because you made a difference.


  1. I know that you did make a difference in my kid's life. Your class was his favorite out of all the ones he has taken in high school. He loved the way you teach. You made him see things differently. He always refers to little things that you said in your class. I know these things came from you without having been in the class because I know you. It will be sad to see you leave but I am glad that you are moving on to do things that you want to do. I know you will be great at whatever you set out to accomplish. You always are. I wish you lots of love, luck and fun in your new adventures!

    1. Thanks, Teresa! I sometimes think that is the best appreciation- students and parents should just let their teachers know how they feel. It makes all the difference in the world!

  2. Ms. Shimmy your awesome

  3. Wow - I have just come across this wonderful story. You are making a difference in your student's lives'. Just wanted to cheer you on for pursuing your PhD. You have a great task ahead of you. I admire your courage and tenacity. Thanks for your article.

    Jennifer Martin