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It's the Little Things

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I was so honored to be asked to write here that I put off writing my first post.  I fell for that old teacher trap: only write about what is Important.  What Matters.  Change the world and all that.  We tell our students this kind of thing every day while at the same time asking them to write about the mundane: summaries of articles, organizing their thoughts on a text they don't know and don't care about, lists, notes, doodles on notes.  The word can change lives, change the world, so we give it the honor and power it is due, and yet, it's the little things that show the real power of writing and ultimately, the real power of teaching.

Today, I asked my sixth grade Spanish students to write just a few lines and predict the end of a story I had been telling them in Spanish.  A simple story, really, one of a love triangle, something they could relate to.  These are some of our struggling students, kids far below grade level, and I have seen it in their writing and lack of English vocabulary since day one.  Today, though, was different.  I asked for just a few lines on a half sheet of lined paper, and students who normally tune me out or tell me daily just how much they hate Spanish were begging to keep writing onto the back of the paper.  Could they write more?  Was it okay?  Such a little thing, asking to write just a few lines more, but it was all I could do to stay serious and look into their fervent faces and nod seriously and say that they could write on the back should they need to.  Inside, I was jumping for joy, but I just could not get silly and excited since they were so serious in their requests.  Once one student asked to write more, it was a cascade.  "Can I write more?"  "Is it okay if I go on the back?"  "You said to write 8 lines, but I wrote 12--is that okay?"

It's the little things that keep us teachers going.  It's a student finally remembering to raise her hand instead of yelling out an answer.  It's one of our own fixing the copier on the day we need a bazillion copies.  It's the student who shyly asks just the right question when no one else has the guts.  It's watching a student figure out how to conjugate a verb, solve a difficult equation, write a good essay, play that song that has been just beyond his reach.  It's the smiles, the hugs, the phone calls home in which we actually agree and come up with a plan that just might work.  It's our principal thanking us for something we had been grumbling about but doing anyway because, well, someone has to do it, and I might as well do it right.

Sadly, some days, it's also the little things that get to us and make us yearn for a different job.  It's the student who complains every day that you don't have a pen for her and you need to go to the store and buy her some (insert profanity of choice here) pens.  It's the students who yell.  All the time.  It's the little sign that he stayed up all night again and won't remember much from today's class as he teeters into sleep yet again.  What really gets to us are all those slings and arrows, those thousand cuts.  It's the little things that are so difficult for us to explain to non-educators that make us go out with the staff on Friday to unwind and commiserate over drinks and food before going home to grade some more and sleep.

It takes so much stamina and energy to deal with angry kids, and all of our students are angry.  Those little things chip away at our beings, and our only salvation is in the little things that feed us.  So, when a student writes you a note or draws a picture of you, hang onto it.  Keep it in that "bad day" file.  Celebrate those little things, even just by putting them on Twitter (#celebrateMonday is just one chat that is a good place to post things like this).  Let them feed your soul and keep you in the classroom, even if it's just for one more day.

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Carina Hilbert is a middle school English/Spanish teacher currently on medical leave from Kalamazoo Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Carina has 10 years of teaching experience in urban, suburban, and rural schools; public, private, and charter schools; and grades 6-12. Last year, she also earned her Master's in the Art of Teaching from the University of Southern California through the Rossier Online program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages with her capstone research being on rural English language learners in Michigan. Carina's main teaching interests are blended learning, alternative education, project-based learning, and working with language learners across the curriculum. She lives in Kalamazoo with her two amazing children, her fiance and his son, as well as their two cats and her rather sizeable book and yarn collection.

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Guest Monday, 18 February 2019