Anyone who know me has heard me say, "This is teacher heaven". I said it ten years ago when I first joined the college. I have said it regularly to my colleagues and recently to the camera crew shooting footage for our new website. (So now my "teacher heaven" phrase is recorded for posterity.) But I remember a time when my school environment was something closer to "teacher torture palace" than heaven. For two years (out of 21) I taught at one of the 'worst' schools in the city. The teachers were burned out, many students dropped out and the parents were mostly absent. Police reports and threats against my person were not unusual. It was hell and when I look at where I am today, I can hardly believe that I lived through those times.
I am thinking of that school because I just read Rodd Lucier's post about letter of gratitude from a student he had taught many years previously. Like many teachers, I have a special folder (now it's digital) where I keep my letters of gratitude from students. His post reminded me that despite the tremendous difficulties I experienced in that school 'from hell', I also received many, many letters and gifts of gratitude. When I meet my old students in shopping malls and on the streets, they never remember the punishments but the good work they did and the precious pride that comes from accomplishment. Truthfully, there were far more positive students than destructive ones, but somehow the memories of that school have been permanently coloured by the general pain I experienced then.
If I had known then what I know now about teaching and learning, maybe things would have been different. I tried my hardest to make classes interesting and to keep them awake. In an early morning economics class, I served coffee to help wake up the ones who worked until late at telemarketing jobs. I traveled with them on the bus and metro and shared in real conversations when I could. But I was not the teacher that I am today. Then I had a harder edge. Time and age have softened my corners.
On this last day of 2010, I am grateful for all the letters of gratitude and words of thanks from my students over the years. Truly, as Rodd Lucier said, this is the greatest gift a teacher can receive. But I am especially grateful for the thanks that came from those students who deserved so much more than I was capable of giving during those years.