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Belief Gap

A Teacher’s Open Letter to Himself: Don’t Give Up

Twenty-four of my students are failing. Only two are passing. They are failing in the grade book. They are failing in mastering content. They are failing in overcoming the abyss of apathy that is a characteristic of the students I teach. And, because of this, I am failing. I have tried dozens of techniques and watched them bomb. And then tried new ones and watched them bomb again. I am frustrated and at a loss and exhausted. For the last month I have fought hard not to admit this to myself, but it’s time I live by a credo to speak hard truths: I want to give up on them. I have heard it over and over again from dozens of teachers: Some kids can’t be reached. Such kids have a perfect storm of disadvantaged genetics, dismantled home-lives, and self-destructive mentalities. One teacher cannot reach them. Nor can one school, nor one community. Save your energy and dedicate it to the “good ones.” Another truth: Lately, I have felt myself nodding in agreement when I hear teachers say these things, even uttering variations of the “Doomed Pupil Decree.” But it’s ironic. Because my students are failing, I feel incompetent. Because I feel incompetent, I want to quit. And yet, quitting is exactly the habit I most want my students to break. It is a grey, dotted line separating irony from hypocrisy. But I can’t shake it from my head that it’s wrong—that I’m wrong—to say “There’s no hope.” I choose to believe that there is always hope. Even if there is no hope, there is always need for hope. I can accept the reality that not every kid will be reached. But, I do not accept abandoning my effort in trying. I can’t kick it out of my mind that every child needs a champion, every quitter needs a coach, every failure needs a fresh start. Even as my frustration hits its wall, as my energy runs on fumes, as the easy option to give up calls me to play—even then I cannot quit. Quitting is not my job. My job is to try to influence every mind that enters my room. Every day. Every student. Every second. And, when I am not trying to my fullest extent I know it—and it is only I who must answer to my own lack of integrity. Even when Carlos walks in late for the ninth time, still no pencil, still no notebook, still with ear buds marking walls of detachment, I cannot give up. Even when Brian is gone for the 12th day in three weeks without the slightest rationale, I cannot give up. Even when Grant says this class is useless and that he doesn’t care about graduating, about his career, about his future, I cannot give up. Even as Cameron hangs on a thread of near-expulsion for breaking into the school to get high, I cannot give up. Even as every inch of gain we made yesterday feels lost today, I cannot give up. Even as I face empty promise after empty promise—from students, from parents, I cannot give up. Even after giving them every conceivable opportunity to succeed, every strategy I currently know, every resource I have, and seeing them fail, I cannot give up. Sometimes I feel like I am only a candle in a cavern of darkness with these students and that both ends are melting. Yet, it is in the darkest rooms that the smallest sliver of light blares brightness to the walls. And this is not winter. This is spring. So I will return day after day after day and face my failing students. I will try strategy after strategy after strategy. I will never stop learning, never stop yearning to be better so I can see better. I will accept that I may try and fail and try and fail again. But, I will not let myself try and fail and try and fail and fail to try again. Tomorrow I will speak with more passion, listen with more empathy, teach with more energy, and plan with more intention. And I will do it again and again and again. Because someone has to. And, I chose to be that someone.
Chase Mielke is a public high school teacher, as well as trainer and instructional coach, in Plainwell, Michigan. He was a 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee, and is a creator of an award-winning Positive Psychology program for at-risk 10th graders. He blogs at affectiveliving.wordpress.com. This post originally appeared at weareteachers.com.
Chase Mielke is a public high school teacher, as well as trainer and instructional coach, in Plainwell, Michigan. He was a 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee, and is a creator of an award-winning Positive Psychology program for at-risk 10th graders. He blogs at affectiveliving.wordpress.com.

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