The Most Important Thing I've Learned from Teaching

Monday, June 29, 2015

After five years teaching in low-income schools, I’m moving on next year to a small public charter school. I thought I would feel more sad or disappointed in myself about leaving, but I’m not. I feel good.  I know that deciding to stay in an environment that I knew was draining me would have been neither brave nor heroic but damaging. 

Anyway, I’ve been in a very reflective mood lately, as I often do at the closing chapter of something important in my life—my senior year of college, the final months of the school year, the last bite of a particularly awesome cookie (“Man, the ratio of batter to chocolate chips was really powerful and evocative.”) I talked about many of the changes I’ve undergone in a previous post, but I left out what I think the most important lesson is that I’ve learned so far in the classroom. And after receiving many emails lately from teachers across the country on this topic, I knew it was time to write about it.


If you’d asked me at any pre-teaching time in my life whether I hated anyone, I would have assured you that I don’t. However, in that same breath I could have listed off about fifteen people that I thought were total jerks and that I would never want to spend more than five minutes with, maybe ever.

Then, when I started teaching, I met The Jerk To End All Jerks. 

He was the assistant principal at my former school and my appraiser. I realized early into the school year that he didn't particularly care for me, and thought I could win him over with kindness, but that was not the case. He would often roll his eyes at me, conduct his observations of my classes the day before a major holiday break, respond to my honest questions or concerns by laughing derisively or trivializing them. I watched him in the hallway go out of his way to bump up against a student who had anger issues, who then blew up at him and was suspended. When I told my assistant principal what I’d seen, he made it clear that if I reported him, my evaluations would suffer. He once responded to a question I asked by leaning back in his chair and mumbling, “Every year I keep asking myself why I’ve gotten myself into a profession with so many women.”

I hated him. And by “I hated him” I mean I hated him. Just seeing him in the hallway or reading his name in my email inbox was enough to get my blood simmering, and I rarely left a meeting with him without crying from frustration or screaming at traffic on the way home. When I finally left that school, I left with a searing bitterness in my heart towards him, one that I held onto long into the next school year.

Luckily for my sanity, at the same time that my hatred was growing and multiplying for my assistant principal, my teaching life was getting easier. I was beginning to get the hang of classroom management, which is largely a result of being willing to put aside a lot of my personal preferences and background and instead focus on my students—who they are and what their needs are. I began to understand that my “worst” students were ones who had had the worst things happen to them. They’d lost parents or siblings. They’d lived through an ugly divorce. They’d been bullied or abused or neglected, or maybe they’d come from a supportive and stable environment but had somehow received the message over and over again from somewhere that they were unimportant, slow, or not enough.

And one day—I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing--I realized the same must have been true for my assistant principal. The true personhood of my assistant principal was not the man I was seeing. He couldn’t have learned that it’s okay to treat people as inferior beings unless someone had modeled it for him. He couldn’t have learned that threats, manipulation, and power moves are appropriate ways of dealing with people unless he himself had been threatened, manipulated, or made to feel powerless.  I pictured him as an 8th grader in my class, coming to school lugging many of the same issues my students do, and for the first time, I felt compasssion for him. For some reason, I had understood that there was a reason for many of my students to have bad attitudes or a temper, but I’d had no such grace for my assistant principal. 

Does this excuse the actions of my assistant principal? No. Does it mean I should have accepted his treatment of me with a “Thank you sir, may I have another?” approach? No. But if I had approached my assistant principal the way I approach my tough students—with patience, grace, and a persistent kindness, the go-out-of-your-way type of kindness—I think I could have had a very different experience at that school, and maybe my assistant principal could have, too. 

Over time, I realized that the truth about my assistant principal was the truth about all the jerks I’ve known in my life—acquaintances, bosses, strangers. This truth is that nobody is intrinsically a jerk. This sounds obvious, and is something I thought I believed before teaching, but I didn't. Not really. I’ve been told and have believed for as long as I can remember that I’m a good person, and instead of using that to seek out the goodness in others, I’ve used that to draw a line in the sand. Good people like me-- who think like me—on this side. Everyone else on the other. I’d said that I loved others, but what I meant was that I loved others once they met my prerequisites.

This is not the way to teach.

This is not the way to live.

I haven’t come anywhere close to mastering the way to teach or live, but I’m working on it. Some of my students still get under my skin, and I’m constantly tempted by many adults to push them onto the “other” side of the sand, or to take the easy way out and pretend that the fronts they’re putting up are their real selves. But while I’m no expert on loving yet, teaching has made me look at these people in a new way. Not as pathetic or inferior, but as human and hurting. Just like I am. 

And I hope to get better at it, no matter where I teach. I think if all of us can look at each other the same way we (hopefully) look at our students--that everyone can be redeemed--maybe we would start to see a different world unfold before us.

Join me?




  1. Simply, "Thank you'" for a beautifully written piece.



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  2. Wow. Simple. Powerful. Amazing.

  3. Principals are people, too.

    Also, way to human. Everyone should human like you do.

  4. Honest and eloquent and hopeful. Thanks for being all three!
    Stories and Songs in Second

  5. I am just starting my first year of teaching and this is the most powerful and inspiring thing I have had come my way. Thank you!!

  6. So touching and beautiful! Brought tears to my eyes. I'm not a teacher but I see truths in this tender piece that will apply to my life, in everything I do. Everyone can benefit from your wisdom.

  7. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing a part of your life and a part of your heart.

    I am a teacher of 20 years. It's easier to understand and forgive your students... cause you know they aren't that mature yet and well, let's face it, they tend to be like our own kids or family. But, I can't say the same thing about the administration or colleagues. Sometimes no matter what you do, how understanding you are, how much you try to win them over with kindness, it just doesn't work. They even take "kindness" and "love" as the equivalent of "naivete" and naivete is sth to be punished and even seen as a weakness. I guess no good deed goes unpunished with these kind of people.

    But even though the admin. and some staff members might not appreciate you now, it does not mean that they might not in the future. I have seen teachers who conspired their evil plans against me, tried everything to discourage me, hated me for going the extra mile for the kids, start doing the same for the kids in the future years. (of course I was long gone from the school)

    Well, like they say... in these cases, forgiveness is more for yourself... you have to let go of the resentment otherwise you will suffocate.

    It was a smart idea that you are leaving the school. It's better to be among people who can appreciate and respect you. Being in a toxic environment for long amounts of time is not easy.

    Between you and me though... those years that I taught my low income students... the students people called "dead end kids" are the ones I cherish the most.

    God bless and good luck in your new school.


  8. I understand what you went through quite well. I definitely tried to see the administrator in those terms but in the end I also realized that no matter how nice or how professional I was her actions and behaviors never would change. She'd made a decision to be that type of person. Understanding doesn't quite extend that much for me. Hopefully I make the decision to never behave that way towards anyone.

    1. Vicky your words are perfect too! I totally agree! Been there...

  9. Teach, you say "This truth is that nobody is intrinsically a jerk" and generally this is true. This understanding is a good way to conduct oneself. But, the statement is not completely true, and it is just as important to understand/be aware that a few, few people are intrinsically a jerk/evil. They do not act or think like most folk and all need to be aware that those few are in our world. Don't fear, just be aware, as most people will not even meet one of these few in person, but that doesn't lessen the danger.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. This administrator should be reported/fired.. Yes it's important to show some empathy towards most bullies however not when they have power/ influence over people's lives.. This is especially true with children.. I've been teaching for fourteen years now & have worked with many incompetent administrators.. I learned quickly that when things get personal that is what your teacher's union is for.. They are the only ones who know how to push back, take legal action & insure professional behavior is represented in one the hardest mental jobs in the world..

  12. Sadly, I think you worked in the wrong district. I work in a poor district and there is NO ONE in our school who is purposely antagonizing our students. We know where they come from and we know what they are dealing with and we build them up... not break them down.

  13. I am experiencing the same thing with my current principal. I know I am doing my job well, but this principal is determined to write me mediocre evaluations and make my job so much harder than it needs to be. I am not alone in feeling bullied on our staff, but I have challenged my evaluations. I have waved the red flag in front of the bull(sh**), and oh, I am paying. Your post makes me remember that 1) I am not alone and 2) even in the middle of it, I can find compassion and grace. I can thank my principal for pushing me into places where I feel uncertain and fragile and examine what is at the heart of that. Thank you, Teach. Love, Another Teach

  14. After 14 years of teaching a principal gave me failure to meet the minimum provincial standards in five areas. He did this to seven different teachers and only kept the two teachers who pretended to be grateful for his wise counsel. Apparently nothing can be done about him in my province. The union representatives just laughed.

  15. I have seen bullying of staff in every school I ever worked. Sometimes I was the target, sometimes it was others. Sadly, the only response to a bully who targets you is to leave before they get you.
    I am sadly, not as positive about the nature of bullies as you. I wish I were. However, I do believe that bullies in such a hierarchical system as education are unable to be challenged, questioned and therefore kept accountable for their actions.It often seems as if they are validated and supported for vilifying teachers by painting them as bad, rather than questioned for their poor leadership in having supposed 'underperformers' in the first place.
    I too am leaving my role and am one of only 10 who have been there over 2 years, which says it all. And my only criteria for the next position is a fair leader who wants to build a team, and support them to be their best.

  16. Thank you for sharing your challenging experiences! I wish you much happiness, support, and success at your new school.

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