I am a teacher. I have been a teacher for 15 years.
This sounds more like an admission than a simple statement of fact, and that bothers me. You see, I have bought into the criticism heaped on teachers by the media and its consumers. Am I overpaid? Do I not work hard enough? Is summer vacation not warranted? People ask me what I do for a living, and I find it uncomfortable to answer directly.
In June I received a note from one of our graduating seniors at Smithtown West High School. She took my creative writing class as a freshman, and creative writing II as a junior.
I remembered how three years earlier, she and a friend were throwbacks, wearing poodle skirts and sharing secret giggles as they worked at their keyboards. They were shy, modest and humble, unlike many of today's cynical and, yes, sometimes arrogant high schoolers.
Her note began, simply enough, with "Thank you." Two words. Perhaps two of the most powerful words in our language, but sorely underused. Teachers throw around the words "entitled" or "brat" to describe the modern student. This student was neither.
I, on the other hand, run my classes as the self-proclaimed Simon Cowell of creative writing. I enjoy playfully tearing into students' poetry, pointing out weaknesses and comparing their rudimentary verse to Dr. Seuss. Even when I am impressed, I highlight something that could be better.
Bottom line: I'm no poet. I like poetry, but sometimes I don't agree with what some literary critics call good poetry. Quite honestly, I often had little to say about this student's work. I was a bit intimidated actually, but she played the good student. She edited and revised, just as student writers are taught beginning in about third grade. She thought about her writing, and when she thought she was done, she edited some more. She just got it.
In creative writing II, students submit their works to publishers, magazines and contests. Successes are sporadic; some works are published on teen poetry websites or in anthologies of student writing. But the class also counts rejection letters as triumphs; they mean an editor has actually read a query and bothered to respond.
The thank-you note mentioned the student's growth as a writer, but what hit me most was what followed.
"Most importantly, you taught me a lot about life," she wrote. "How to express myself, how to have confidence in myself, how to work harder. So I thank you for that. I grew from a Dum-Dum lollipop to a Smartie!" (These were references to my candy-coded grading system.)
She also sent a script and DVD of a play she wrote for our school's Thespian Troupe Tournament of Plays, in which a senior writes and/or directs peers in a performance. The student wrote and directed. I had critiqued her script, but could not attend the performance. Hers won best play that night.
And so I learned something. This student taught me not to ignore the criticisms of education today, but to embrace them -- even if we believe we're a little wiser than the critics. That freshman from four years ago is gone. In her place stands a mature, self-assured college student.
Her little note was a license to stand up and be counted as a teacher -- a good teacher, a proud teacher.