Dear Those Who Believe it Takes a “Special Kind of Person” to Work in a “School like That,”
This is the summed up version of the journey that lead me to believe that special kinds of people do not really exist. The story begins with an event that echoes the mistakes I have made throughout my life. The kind of mistake I frequently make that cause me trouble that could be avoided.
I applied for student teaching two years ago today. My application process was fraught with stress because my university managed to attach my first major’s course load to my application instead of the course load I had actually completed. I cut it down to the wire, like I always do, and had less than 24 hours to submit the application when I found out that I had no credits behind my application and could not submit it until I had my advisor change the courses that were attached to my application.
Well, the initial disaster was averted when I basically demanded to see my advisor and told the secretary I would sit in the office until she could see me and the second her scheduled appointments walked out and the next one was not right at the door I would walk in whether I had an appointment or not. She probably only let me back there because she did not want me to bother her all day. It ended up being an easy fix and I finished the application with about two hours to spare.
A few months later, I found out my placement.
What I felt initially was dread. I lived in a small but somewhat wealthy rural community all my life. I lived in a small town where I always felt safe going out at night but was constantly warned about doing so in other towns. There were two nearby towns in particular those from my town avoided and here I was, with a letter telling me I would be going to one of them every weekday for four months.
One year from then, I would begin teaching there. I spent the next year convincing myself things could have been worse. When I finally visited, some of my fears melted away. Upon walking into the school I felt the feeling you get when you walk in a good place. I have been in quite a few schools and have found there is a feeling you get from some that tells you, this is a good place. It definitely took some conscious decision making to move myself past the struggles I frequently faced. It also took the intelligent patience of my mentor teacher and the other teachers in the school to help me figure out how to make those choices.
Things radically changed for me over that five months (I ended up stay for an extra month as a volunteer in the room). I learned so much but the most important thing I learned was that you do not have to be born that “special kind of teacher that it takes to work in a place like that.” You have to decide that you are. You have to make a choice every day to show up for those kids who are more challenging than others. It’s not about being that special kind of person but deciding to show up and be invested (instead of go through the motions). You do not have to be born special, you can choose to just be what you have to be.
My mentor once said to me, “these kids have very little consistency in their lives and just by being here every day it makes them feel safer.” It brings order to their lives. It doesn’t do teachers like my mentor and those other around me justice by passing off their dedication and concious choice to do the best job they can despite the challenges by saying, “they must be one of those special kinds of teachers that can work in a place like that.” They do not possess some strange magic that allows them to dedicate themselves to this work they have just made the choice to to do what others are afraid to do.
Teachers in schools with high socioeconomic statuses still have to make that choice every day. They make the same choice to show up for their kids that those of us in schools with students at and below the poverty line or schools with a large number of behaior challenges make. People often say to me, “I could never work in a place like that. You have to be that special kind of teacher.” It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you have decided not to.
I look around at the other teachers in my building and the ones from the elementary I knew from student teaching and I realize it has little to do with this mystical-teaching-ability that people seem to think you either have or you don’t, and everything to do with making a conscious choice to be fully there for the students. In all of the teachers around me, I see it. They choose to be there because who else will be. They choose to be invested because, as my intermediate mentor once told me, “these kids deserve good teachers.”
I am not sure whether I can consider myself one who has made the concious choice yet, but I am working on it. I can hardly compare myself to the others around me who consistently show that they have made that choice. Yet here I am, in the school I’m in, with the students I have.
It doesn’t make me special. It doesn’t make me somehow better. It simply means a choice to do what is needed has been made.