Monday, November 19, 2007

New Thanksgiving Stories

Monday, November 19, 2007

New Thanksgiving Stories

At my first Thanksgiving as a new teacher I was the center of attention at the dinner table. My first three months had provided me with plenty of captivating tales to tell. It felt good to make the table ooh and ahh, laugh and gasp, over my stories. But I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable after the dinner table talk died down.

These stories were of the variety that capture public attention, but they were not stories that captured the magic I felt in being a teacher. They were true, but they were also mainly shocking. Like most of the news we hear about schools they featured the appallingly low skills of my students, the struggle to overcome a tremendous lack of resources in my school, the atrocious behaviors that cropped up in my classroom, the adult experiences endured by teenage children, etc., etc., etc.

My stories were not of the inspiring variety, and I remember thinking when I went to bed that I had created a grim picture of my school in the minds of my audience. Though I knew the picture was accurate, it was not complete, and I was sad that I had not used my moment on the stage to talk about all the beautiful things that also happened within those cinder-block walls.

Maybe this is why people have such a bad opinion of schools in general. We don't tend to tell many of the good stories, although in even the worst schools wonderful things happen every day. These are not the things of bold headlines, often they're so tiny they escape the notice of nearly everyone in the building.

Last week we asked our Teacher Advisory Board, a group of about 15 DC Public School teachers, to share their inspiring stories from the past 3 months of school. It took a minute for the group to warm up to the request. That's just not the way we're used to talking about school.

Eventually these are some of the beautiful things that came out:

  • A Head Start student who has already been kicked out of 5 elementary schools finally found a teacher who is taking the time to see what makes him tick. He's learning to work with his peers and trust the love he's getting from his teacher.
  • A music teacher found a way to let a suspended student attend the opera because she'd seen a spark light up in him when he studied the score.
  • Tasked with the challenge of teaching a classroom full of boys, a teacher changed her style to incorporate more kinesthetic learning in the day.
  • After struggling under challenging leadership for a few years, a teacher has discovered new enthusiasm for his profession with an inspiring new principal.
  • A lesson on nutrition empowered one young girl to teach her mother about what constitutes a healthy breakfast.
These are just a few of the stories we heard, and they're not the kinds of stories you're likely to see covered on tonight's evening news. But they are the kinds of stories that keep teachers coming back to school every day, and they're the stories that hint at the slow but incredibly powerful work we are engaged in when we set about the task of helping children reach their full potential.

I like to think I didn't tell these kinds of stories that Thanksgiving long ago because I didn't have them to tell. But I did. In truth I think I knew they wouldn't get the same reaction out of my audience. Perhaps if we told these stories more, people would begin to expect more out of our schools because they would see what is possible.

This Thanksgiving I have the tales of these teachers to tell. I have the other variety too. But I've come to believe those really aren't the stories people need to hear.

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