On the last day of school in 2015 I met with an Assistant Principal (who asked to remain anonymous). That morning he had found a letter in his drawer from an unknown student who had snuck into (or broken into) his office to leave a note containing a message the student was unprepared to share with him face to face.
The letter had shocked him. It had left him speechless. He had read the letter for the first time five hours before we met, but he was still trying to process its contents.
As we spoke about the letter and what it meant he described the challenges of his job to me:
“I’m in a tough environment. It’s low socio-economic, under-privileged, and under-resourced. I deal with conflict. Every. Single. Day. I get in my car to drive to school each day and feel calm. But by the time I’m at school I can feel my stress levels sky-rocketing. I can actually feel my heart beating hard as I walk in the school gate.
“Some days I have parents in my office yelling at me. They say stuff like ‘You aren’t looking after my kid! It’s YOUR FAULT he’s failing!’ And they’re pointing their fingers at my chest and doing everything they can to intimidate me. And that’s the easy stuff on a good day.
“In a job like this, you just get hammered and hammered.”
That morning he had arrived at school early. As he approached his office he noticed that his door was ajar. It is NEVER ajar. He had wandered over to his desk and stared at the open top drawer. He ABSOLUTELY NEVER left his drawer open.
In the drawer he had spotted a piece of A4 paper, folded in quarters, with grubby fingerprints all over the back of it.
That was when he got worried. Someone had been in his office, uninvited! They had unlocked the door, opened the drawer, and left a note.
He immediately suspected the worst. His job was to deal with the challenging kids (and their parents) all day every day. Who left the note? What did it say?
Tentatively he had reached into the drawer and picked up the paper. He opened it, bracing for the insults, expletives, and threats. And then… silent contemplation. He described how his eyes began to blur unexpectedly. He read the anonymous letter ten times. And then he read it again. It was simple. But it was enough to touch him.
Dear Mr ______
Thank you for showing up at skool everyday, to help us kids learn.
Thank you for not kicking me out of skool. Thank you for giving me second chances 🙂
Thank you for always being there for me, when I’m in trouble.
Thank you for being the type of principal, that helps kids in need.
I thank you dearly 🙂
The letter affected him profoundly. As we spoke (five hours after he had received the note), he was still profoundly moved. Holding the note in his hands he slowly read the last line to me, repeating it several times.
“I thank you dearly.”
With tears in his eyes, he held up the note and shared a wry smile.
“On the last day of school I get a note like this. And it makes everything worth it.”
To me, that note represented everything that is right with great teachers.
Great teachers struggle, just like everyone else. You get fed up, frustrated, and sometimes you even get angry. Many chafe at curriculum demands, suffocating policy decisions, and the endless, soul-destroying marking. You wonder how some parents can be so uncaring, some colleagues can be so unwilling, and some students can be so unthinking.
But you push through all of the red tape and bureaucracy – and all the emotional and psychological turmoil – because you know that you are dealing with real people whose lives matter; children with genuine needs, parents with genuine concerns, and colleagues with genuine motives. You persist, patiently but firmly, in teaching, sharing, listening, guiding, counselling, lifting, inspiring, building, creating, instructing, facilitating, and giving all you have to give. Every. Single. Day.
And often you do it without fanfare, gifts, awards, or even a simple anonymous note of “thanks”.
The rewards come. Seeing students learn, develop, and grow is one of the most meaningful experiences we can enjoy. Milestones are met and passed. Students give gifts and parents write letters. These moments are wonderful, and they are to be celebrated.
But every so often, something happens that changes everything – at a time when you least expect it. A student breaks into your office. You don’t know who it was, but you do know that they’re one of the ones that is often in trouble, and who struggles a lot. He or she opens your drawers, and leaves a grubby, misspelled, hand-written note telling you that you have made a difference in their life.
The students ‘thank[s] you dearly.”
And you sit at your desk in quiet, contented contemplation and think to yourself, “This is why I do what I do.”
The school holidays are almost over. Term 1 looms large. Preparations are beginning (or are perhaps in full-swing). And most teachers are gearing up for a great year making a genuine difference in the lives of children.
But everyone knows that motivation can be fleeting. The peaceful, inspiring fresh start with a new class for the New Year can be shattered within days. The motivation becomes hard to sustain. A handful of students will test boundaries – and teacher’s resolve to be kind, positive, and helpful – probably within hours of class commencing. And it will get tough.
When that happens, reflect on the moments you have had that make it worthwhile. That student having a breakthrough. That colleague sharing how you inspired them. That parent crying with appreciation for your efforts with her child.
And here’s to a positive, strengths-focused 2016.