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I teach because . . . Reflections from the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention

This post is written by members Stephanie Fleck and Sarah Heldt. 

stephanie-and-sarahEvery year when the NCTE Annual Convention rolls around, it somehow coincides with the time where I question my career: not my students or my lessons or my collaboration with colleagues, but navigating the politics of education on district, state, national, and international levels. My favorite English teacher (who is no longer with us), Jeffrey Mayer, once told me, “When you’re in your classroom and with the kids, it will be wonderful. Everything outside your classroom is psychological warfare.” I think of him often, and the longer I teach the more I recognize the power and truth in those words.

But then, I co-chair The Screening Room at NCTE. And I go to incredible sessions. And I remember that there are other teachers who navigate the psychological warfare every day and do it because the kids need and deserve it. And I think about the teachers who changed my life and how I hope to change my students lives. And it all makes sense again.

This year’s Annual Convention was no different. In our first film of the day at the Screening Room, Romeo Is Bleeding, we saw more than a hundred teachers show up at nine in the morning. We saw them engage in active discussions with the incredibly powerful, charming, and eloquent Donté Clark talking about using spoken word and Shakespeare to change young lives. We watched them connect with Molly Raynor, Donté’s English teacher, who inspired him to make his voice heard. We spoke with the director, Jason Zeldes, and the producer, Michael Klein, about how important raising awareness of our underrepresented students, the difficulties they face, and the incredibly powerful voices they have when given opportunities through spoken word or other creative mediums can be. These filmmakers work so hard to represent the lives of these African-American students in a heavily gang-invested area who do not fall into violence, but find ways to fight against it through literature and spoken word. They make these students’ stories approachable and relatable to all students’ stories, which helps to make a positive impact in our ever-challenging world.

This group was so magical in fact, that along with Sarah Heldt (Screening Room Facilitator), we attended the cast and crew’s own session later in the day. Just before their session, Sarah and I talked over lunch about the struggle of being valued for authentic teaching. Not looking at grades or test scores or students’ academic selves over who they are and what they need from moment to moment every day. We heard Molly and Donté echo these same struggles, and reaffirm that the best teachers ask “How are you today?” before anything else. Teachers facilitate difficult conversations in a safe and supportive space that they work every day to create and maintain. Teachers teach their students on a human level and put their students’ well-being before their grammatical correctness.

It was reaffirming and heartbreaking. It was what we needed to hear and what scares us. It was a reminder that we have to do the right thing because it is the right thing—even as others try to convince us otherwise.

In the last few minutes of the session, Molly gave us a writing prompt and five minutes to free write. The prompt wasn’t structured around Common Core Standards or figurative language or the deep metaphorical resonance of how we are like all those movies that show how one teacher changes EVERYONE’S life. Instead, we wrote about why we teach. Why we write. Why. And if we got stuck? Start with because . . . and explain from there. This is what we wrote. And this is why we teach.

(Please note: These are EXACTLY what we free wrote without editing for grammar or coherent thoughts)

Stephanie’s response

I write for myself mostly but I teach for my kids. They are not just faces I see in the classroom but rather a classroom full of my children. I adopt them. Their worries, their fears, their hopes dreams crushes successes failures moods passions goals and worries. We share them. I teach for Jimmy who is scared and I told him that anyone who wants to harm him has to go through me. For him telling me I’m his hero. For me responding that he is mine. I teach for Freddy who is in the military and wants me at his graduation because his undocumented parents aren’t allowed. I teach the “at risk” kids because they drive me crazy and make me wonder if this is even worthwhile and how in the world I’m going to do this for another year and then the next minute comes and they tell me I’m so calm and positive all the time and they don’t know how I do it. And I tell them I love them when other teachers question how I deal with them. And I don’t just tell them, I really do love them unconditionally. Their screw ups are my screw ups and their successes are my pride and joy. I care about them and they know that and I say hello to them by name every single morning, and sometimes that’s the only adult that has talked to them all day. They are in my head and overwhelm my life and I love them for it and miss them when I’m here [at the conference]. I teach for them and for all the kids who need someone who gets them and loves them and isn’t just another authority figure who tells them they are not enough. They are more than enough for me.

Sarah’s response

Because . . .

Because they are dealing with more than we know

Because dependability, safety, authenticity is my offering

Because there is immeasurable value in their voices

Because I endeavor to deserve them

Because they need to understand the worth of words

Because it is important

Because I get better with each new experience and relationship

Because I want to lift people up

Because it’s my purpose.

Because…

Sarah Heldt has spent her 16 year career as an English teacher serving grades 6-12. She now works as a high school English teacher at Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois, and appreciates the crazy workings of her freshmen’s minds on a daily basis.

Stephanie Fleck (@sweiss_teach) is an English teacher at Barrington High School in Barrington, IL. She enjoys writing, reading, lots of coffee, and laughing at all the hilarious things her upperclassman say each day.