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Delayed Gratification in Education

The importance of knowing fulfillment will come

by Dawn J. Mitchell

Second semester has begun for us in the education profession and while in August school starts with a flurry of new supplies and the excitement of a new year, January usually begins with eyes bleary from the waning excitement of a two week long holiday break, shoulders trudging to the bus stop with the same old bookbag and routines, heavy with the knowledge that the next break will not come until the season changes and spring is here. Winter has come, but that does not mean growth isn’t still happening. Many times these three months between Christmas and Spring Break can be the hardest for our new teachers. They’ve settled into a routine that is full of early morning duties and late nights planning and grading, and they want to make a difference, but many times they are trying to make it through the day. This blog post is for you.

When I first began my teaching career almost twenty years ago now I was having a conversation with a trusted mentor about the daily demands of our profession, of planning and preparation but most of all of taking time to make personal connections to my students by attending their games and sporting events, by taking time to talk with them at lunch, and of making sure I made each of them feel important and she said to me, “The days are long, but the years are short. You are planting seeds that will grow fruit. Just be patient and don’t give up. Your fulfillment will come.” 

She was right.  

It was several years before I knew if I had made a difference in the lives of my fourth graders. Sure, I had end of year standardized test scores that showed we made some progress in reading and math, but it was many years down the road before I got an email from a former fourth grader that said she was majoring in English because she learned a love of reading in our classroom library or a facebook message from a student to say he was glad that I was there when his little brother had cancer. Those notes and messages of affirmation are prized possessions of mine. I still have an old answering machine cassette tape in my desk drawer of a student who moved away to a different school and called just to let me know my division song helped her on her first middle school math test.

Fulfillment came.

It did not come in as an award or a banquet or public recognition, but rather in the private echoes of gratitudes from students who remembered the hands that planted seeds in their lives. 

In an age of instant gratification where fulfillment and encouragement is a “like” button or an Amazon click away, it can be tempting to put our worth as educators only in the moment of the day or in the student outcomes printed on school report cards. Those aren’t enough to sustain even a day in this profession, much less a career. If you ask any educator with many years in the field why they still teach, they will tell you they are doing it for the long term. They are investing in a future that hasn’t been determined yet. The most important gratification will not come from test scores or from school recognition but will come in fact, from your students.  You will see desks taped with student notes, drawers in file cabinets filled with treasures, and “happy” file folders on laptops that save precious emails that aren’t written until years after they are no longer sitting in desks in your room.

My colleagues and I want to take time to encourage all of our teachers through this stretch of winter with some encouragement, sharing some of our fulfillments in the profession with you.

Dawn Mitchell, Instructional Services, Spartanburg District Six

Last week one of my former students sent me a private message through social media sharing that he loved my class because he knew I cared about him and that his wife has just started her teaching career and he made sure to tell her about Mrs. Mitchell’s class because I made sure he knew I cared about him. I taught him 17 years ago, and he took time to tell me what happened in room 103 for a short 180 days mattered. His smile made a difference then. His words provide gratification for the work now.

Dr. Creighton Eddings, Principal, Berkeley County School District

We started Leader in Me 3 ½ years ago with the hope that it would make a difference in the lives of students. A few weeks ago, two 5th grade students approached me and said that their teacher worked really hard and should be recognized. After thinking for a few seconds, they decided that all teachers in our school work really hard and should be celebrated. They decided that they wanted to give the gift of time and a small treat to our teachers.

The students went door-to-door around the school and took a poll of our staff’s favorite treats. At the next faculty meeting, the two students got up and told the staff that they appreciated their hard work. As a reward, they wanted to share treats (brownies and doughnuts) and then let the staff go home. The staff was blown away. We wanted to help foster student leaders and we got to see it in action. We planted the seeds and watched them grow over time.

Abbey Duggins, PhD., Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Saluda County Schools

Sometimes the impact we have on our students isn’t academic. As a middle school ELA teacher, I often used music as a way to build community. As an avid collector of vinyl, I always kept a record player in my classroom. My Millennial students would often groan good-naturedly as I played the likes of Cat Stevens or Simon & Garfunkel for them.

One day, a colleague texted me a screenshot of an exchange she saw on Twitter. Students I had taught over a decade ago were engaged in a thread about the Beatles. One of them tweeted, “Best middle school memory: listening to records in Mrs. Duggins’ class.” A couple of months ago, another former student, now a teacher herself, tweeted at me about a song she and her younger sister remembered listening to in my class! Academic content is critical, of course, but sometimes the connections students and teachers make beyond the standards are the most enduring.

Julie M. McDowell, ELA teacher, Spartanburg District Six

The first year I taught English II Honors, I felt overwhelmed 90% of the time. I was trying to stay one step ahead of my students as we tackled texts like “Civil Disobedience” and “The Declaration of Independence” while still giving them time to write meaningful, real-world pieces. I questioned my effectiveness daily. In the final week of the semester, my students compiled their writing portfolios and wrote reflections.

The reflection of one student made me cry. She said that she had always hated ELA classes. Previous English classes had confused her and made her feel like literary analysis and quality writing were skills she would never own. But…her time in my class had taken away her “fear of revision” and taught her “how to understand what” she read “piece by piece.” She talked about how she would feel more confident in future English classes because she knew that she really COULD understand difficult texts and revise her writing to come up with a finished piece that she was proud of. I keep that reflection and revisit it when I lose sight of why I do what I do.

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