Many people have asked me, "What is the best part of teaching?" For the longest time, I gave the answer, "Seeing the lightbulb go off when students figure something out." That moment is really great. I mean, after working hard for several days, watching a student realize that they understand a tough concept like area of irregular polygons or hearing them fluently read a book that a month ago was challenging or read a poem they wrote is pretty exciting. I also smile and feel my heart beat when I see students stand up to bullies or sit next to someone who is frequently alone. Those moments are huge and I love watching them. But, teaching to me is so much more. It always has been but after over seventeen years in various classrooms of various grade levels and abilities, I finally can put into words my true favorite part of teaching. It's actually just one word: Relationships.
Today, that really hit me. My co-worker and I organized a guest speaker, Sam Mihara, to come to our corner of Wyoming and speak at several different venues to teach about life at Heart Mountain Internment Camp during WW2. While we were at the high school where two of his speeches were held, I saw several former students. One is now a senior, so I asked if he would be graduating in May. He smiled and said he would. I told him I better be invited. He replied, "Oh, you will be! I will hand deliver that invitation to you at your school. You have to be there, Miss Schwartz!" I smiled as he walked away, and a feeling of peace and gratitude washed over me. I've known that young man for over six years--before I was married--and he still remembers me. I also taught one of his younger sisters. That family touched my heart.
I also saw three other former students and they all grinned and said hi to me. A student I didn't have but did teach her brother gave me a big hug. Why would high school freshmen greet and hug a former elementary teacher with such enthusiasm? Because we had a relationship. They are imprinted on my heart and I hope I am on theirs.
Last week, I was blessed to watch another former student sign to play college soccer. He, his mom, and his dad were happy to see me. I cried when he signed, but it was a proud teacher cry. When his mom asked for a picture with him and another of his elementary teachers, how could I say no?
On the way in to that same event, another student I had over two years ago saw me and ran up for a huge hug. I had taught her and her younger sister each for two years and since the little sister wasn't there, we took a selfie and sent it to her. (She wasn't very happy with her sister!) Their mom also hugged me. We talked and laughed. Why? Again, we built a relationship over four years and continue it to this day.
Is this a recent "thing" that started when all of our fifth and sixth grade classes started looping? No, not at all. I've built relationships with students and families for years. I attended the graduation of two former students whom I had taught for four years in a self-contained special education classroom. Several students from my first class ever are friends with me on Facebook and I am able to see how they are doing.
Why do I take the time to build relationships with my students and their families? It's easy! I love my students; they are my kids from the time they are in my classroom until, well, I don't know when they still stop being my kids. See, I believe that students are more than test scores. I believe students have lives outside of our classroom walls. I believe that students are people. I believe I need to know my students on a different level than just a student; I need to know what makes them who they are. I believe that parents, families, and teachers need to work together to help children grow and become the most successful versions of themselves as possible. When I taught in special education classrooms, I believed those students were more than their disability. They were smart and funny and taught me more than I ever taught them. They helped me through a very difficult time because of their compassion and kindness. Without the relationships of my students and their families, I would not be the teacher, the friend, the wife, the daughter, the aunt, the sister, the person I am today.
So, the next time someone asks me, "What is the best part of teaching?" I am going to smile wide and tell them, "Relationships."