I had lunch last week with a former teacher who taught language arts across the hall from me during my last year of teaching. She told me she had discovered one of our students working at a fast food restaurant across town. As soon as she said his name, I immediately recalled a talented young man who struggled with so many conflicting emotions.
During the second semester of his 8th grade year Andy was involved in a nasty fight at school and was not allowed to return the rest of the year. He had so much potential: talent, brains, personality, but the road in his life was not easy. It reminded me of Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son”. The poem is the advice a mother gives her son about life. This line, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”, was true for Andy.
The good news about this story is that Andy kept climbing, and his life is together. He has been working steadily at this job and attends high school.
And there it was — a paycheck. Two years after retirement I feel like I just received a paycheck for the investment of energy, time, and effort spent on Andy. I learned that despite his circumstances, our Andy was succeeding. Only a teacher can appreciate that good feeling. It means our efforts and concerns were not in vain.
So often teachers don’t know how our students’ lives turn out. In a large city school system, it’s not easy to keep up with former students. While watching the evening news, I hope I will not see a former student’s picture on the screen from an arrest. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens.
For many years the 8th grade team at my school attended the high school graduation ceremonies that most of our students attended. We posed for pictures and later posted them on a bulletin board in the hall for the next group of 8th graders to see. We used the bulletin board as a motivator for our 8th graders. I frequently told my classes that I wanted to see their picture up there in four years.
It was such a joyous time to be reunited with these young men and women on their important day. That graduation day was a big paycheck day for us teachers. The hugs, smiles, surprise (“You came!”) from students were such rewarding moments. One year Patricia came rushing up and hugged me so tightly. When she was an 8th grader I wasn’t sure she would stay in school long enough to graduate. I was so happy to say,”You did it! You stayed with it! I am so proud of you.” Her big smile still pops into my head when I remember that day.
If you want another heart-warming story of how a teacher made a difference in one life, check out this story from NPR. It is embedded within an interview with the author of Okay For Now. You have to read all the way to the end of the story to see what the author says about his teacher.
Do you keep a folder of your “Paycheck” moments? You need a place to stash those notes from students who surprise you with a “thank you” or write an apology when you did not expect one. Keep a gratitude journal for those moments that fill you with encouragement and hope.
You’ll need to remind yourself of these moments when you’ve had a discouraging day.
Give thanks for moments of hope and joy and encouragement.