Encouragement from My Students to Their Teachers
One of my English II classes was ahead of the other three in finishing a play last week, and I decided to have each student write a letter of encouragement to the teacher of his/her choice. I explained some of the pressures on teachers, not the least of which is having one’s job contingent upon student test scores. I told them that teachers are being told that education in America has failed and that it is the teachers who are responsible for this failure. I told them that teaching is being declared a “nonprofession”– that corporate reformers are saying that anyone can teach with minimal or no teacher preparation.
I instructed my students that their goal was to encourage. I also promised them that I would deliver the letters to their selected teachers.
At the time, I thought I was meeting a Common Core objective by having my students write these letters. I knew that English II Common Core had letter-writing objectives. However, the letter-writing objectives are narrowly defined to include only a letter to the editor or a letter of complaint.
I wanted this assignment to be personal and to have a real-life outcome (that of delivery to a specific teacher). I did not want the assignment to be “removed” from the students in the form of a letter to a nonexistent editor. And I certainly did not want my students to compose letters of complaint to their already-oppressed teachers.
There are other Common Core objectives to which I might connect this assignment in order to lend it the modern definition of “educational legitimacy.” The assignment required students to follow oral directions; to select language appropriate to their audience, and to follow acceptable conventions of grammar and spelling.
Nevertheless, this assignment does not meet the Common Core definition of a valid letter-writing assignment for English II.
It’s a good thing that I still believe that I can critically weigh the value of an assignment using my expert judgment.
This was a beautiful assignment. I watched my second period students as they were absorbed in their writing.
I offered the assignment to two more of my English II classes. In this post, I would like to share excerpts from some of my students’ letters.
First, let me begin by saying a notable number of my students chose to write to their teachers the words, “I love you” at the close of their letters. They were not prompted by me to so do. It was their decision.
Those three touching words put the reformer emphasis on standardized test scores to shame.
Through this assignment, students are able to write and teachers are able to read that their students love them, whether such love is directly stated or implied in a letter’s content.
There are other sentiments expressed, including lighthearted comedy and the maturing ability to both reckon with and laugh at oneself:
I never thanked you for helping me with my junior research. I don’t think I could have even turned it in if it wasn’t for you helping me with it. Thank you very much for caring; it really means alot.
I’m also sorry that I failed your class twice. I know I contributed to your low test grades and class average. I hope next year for my third time taking the class that I pass. You’re a great teacher; so, it wasn’t your fault, it was mine for whatever my reasons were for failing your class. Thank you, and I’m sorry again. See you next year!
Then there are the students who know they were difficult to teach; who are maturing in their personal responsibility and who see this letter as an opportunity to make amends:
I know it’s hard to teach a bunch of punk kids all day, especially me. I realize the stress you’re under and know my immaturity is not helping. And me not doing my work is just dumb, but from now on I’m doing all my work.
My behavior has been bad and childish. I realize I have to get on my studies if I want a successful future. Things are hard but I just make them harder on my self. I’m sorry.
There is also evidence of the power of connection between teacher and student:
I can even come to you about problems not related to school, and you will be there. I really appreciate it. You go above and beyond.
I’ve been going through a lot lately with my grandpaw passing away and just friends and life in general. You give the best advice. You don’t understand how much I honestly appreciate it. I’d do anything to pay you back. Thank you so much.
Students are adept at discerning teacher sincerity:
You explain things and interact with your students. You don’t make us just do bookwork all the time. You actually try to make us learn; and you don’t just get us to learn for the scores. You do because you actually care about how we do, or if we know what we’re doing.
More teacher (and student) sincerity:
I heard about how much stress teachers are under. And how all the government and education boards want is students’ scores. But I know how much teaching means to you, as more than just teaching schoolwork. And I’d like to thank you for putting up with the stress for us.
You’re probably my favorite teacher, and I enjoy your class alot. I learn alot, even if I don’t always show it in my grades.
Some students are shocked at the attack on their beloved teachers:
When I read about that they are saying that y’all are bad teachers, I thought to myself, “Wow.” Y’all go through alot daily, and Mrs. T, you are very smart and you inspire me to do good daily, and I actually learn things from you. Even though I’m not your best student, you treat me the same, and I love you for that.
I have heard that you are under a lot of stress after being told that, “It doesn’t take any kind of special training to be a teacher” and “Your efforts at teaching aren’t good enough.” Don’t let that bring you down! You are an amazing teacher; keep teaching how you teach.
Students have become their teachers’ cheerleaders.
Below is another “cheer”:
You are an amazing teacher no matter what anyone says. I heard that people aren’t being very supportive and are saying you’re not really doing your job. Well I don’t think that’s true what-so-ever. You connect so good with your students; you’re always there for them and try to motivate them to do work. You explain your work very well and strive to help students do great. …Don’t stop teaching just because of what someone says. Keep up the good work. Don’t let people get you down.
Students know that the current devaluing of their teachers is wrong:
We have been learning about the government talking bad about the teachers and the school system. According to them it takes no skill to be a teacher, and the only thing that matters is the students’ grades; well, personally, I don’t think that is fair. And I wanted to give you a thanks for sticking in there for us. … I feel like I learned more in your class than any other class last year. I think you are an amazing teacher, and I wanted to thank you for sticking around.
Students know that test scores cannot capture their teachers’ worth and that students must exercise personal responsibility:
I know the teachers and administrators are under a lot of stress right now. I think you’re the best teacher. They say you don’t need special training to be a teacher, but I think you do. Teachers and administrators put a lot of time and effort into our school. I believe your pay shouldn’t be based on our test scores, because not every student tries hard on tests.
I hope that whoever is stressing the teachers and administrators out realizes that teaching is not an easy job. I think you do your job well. You make school fun and reading these boring books more interesting. I hope everything goes well and you continue to be the best teacher at S High.
I have been informed all the teachers and administrators are under a lot of stress right now, and their test scores reflect [upon] you. I disagree with that. You are one of the best teachers I’ve had. Some students are not good test takers or don’t try. That should not represent your ability as a teacher. …
I feel like I am not always trying to my full potential. Which is my fault. How much you care about your students’ success makes me want to try even harder.
Students value their teachers’ talents:
From experience of this year, I know that I have honestly never had a better math teacher than you. I’ve never been able to understand any form of math well, until I stepped into your class. You’re an amazing teacher, and I can almost swear that you’re a miracle worker!
Students know that there are higher-order lessons related to living a successful life. Consider this excerpt from one student to his coach:
Even though you don’t teach anything academically, that I’m aware of, you are teaching us character. Teaching us this is getting ready for the real world and preparing us for all the other challenges that occur in life.
Teachers influence their students’ futures:
After having your class, I wanted to major in biology in college because I enjoyed it so much…. I thank [you for] your patience with all of us.
I wouldn’t be here without you. You taught me how to study, how to learn, how to think. You were always here for me. I trusted you. I came to you if I ever needed any help. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.
You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had. I love being in your class and the way you teach. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know none of the bones, muscles, or any medical related things. I’ve really learned alot in your class, and I hope to learn way more. You’re really making me into a great future doctor or nurse. … I love you, and thank you for everything.
Students know that genuine, invested teachers try to motivate:
You always try to find a way to get to know each and every one of your students. You always try to make our work fun and interesting, and it really works! I’ve never been more interested in science! I can honestly say that every day I get out of your class, I learn something new and interesting. Thank you, Mr. H!
And students appreciate the efforts their teachers devote toward student learning:
Thank you for being such a great teacher. You have been my favorite teacher this year. I have heard that teachers are being told that they’re not doing a good job teaching. I want to thank you for all the hard work you do to help us with Geometry.
I really appreciate it that you type up our notes for us. The note-taking guides really help me! I’ve always struggled with math, but this year, it’s my favorite subject.
Students appreciate teachers who advocate for them:
I would like to thank you for being my teacher. I appreciate the fact that you care alot about your students. I believe that you are an inspiring educator. I love your silly puns and your sarcasm. Your class is one of the reasons I would get up and come to school every day.
Thank you for standing up for our right to a good education. I am glad that I know you. And I am proud to know that when you’re famous I will be able to tell people that you are my teacher.
I wanted to write this letter to you personally and tell you that you mean a lot to me. You brighten up my day when I come to 6th hour. … You are an inspiration to all.
I have never met a teacher like you. You are the #1 advocate in our parish. You are so dedicated to teaching. Those teachers are hard to find. I know that you truely love your kids and that’s touching. You have taught me to suck it up and do what I have to do to be successful. I thank you for being there as a teacher and also a mentor. Keep doing what you are doing in striving to make the school system better.
In these excerpts, students clearly illustrate the splendor and complexity that is the teacher-student relationship. What you read above is the essence of education, the pulse of the classroom, the lifeblood of the school.
Content and curriculum cannot work when divorced from the reality of the student-teacher relationship dynamic.
Test scores can never capture the value of this dynamic.