My Students Are My “Why?”

This entry was written by Amy Voss, an elementary teacher at Chaddock School. She has worked in the education field for seventeen years. In her free time, she enjoys being with her family, playing with her dog, baking, gardening, and getting crafty with her Cricut machine.


Approximately five years ago on a cold, snowy day, I was completing reading assessments with middle school students when one of them asked me a question. His question, asked in total earnest, caused me to explore my distant past and particularly my own experience as a fifth-grader.


The truth of the matter is, I rarely spoke in elementary school when I was a student (I once peed on the floor in Kindergarten because I was too scared to ask to go to the restroom). I had a lot of anxiety as a child and that made it very hard to concentrate. As a result, I was never a great student academically. I learned that if I behaved and stayed quiet, I could get through my school days, somewhat successfully. For the most part this worked for me until fifth grade, when unkind remarks from my teacher embedded in my psyche, where they lay dormant until I was posed this question.


Returning to this particular day five years ago, I had pulled this student into an office to complete his reading assessment. Reading was never his favorite topic but he had made a lot of progress during the first half of the year and I was eager to see his results. “I wonder if I’ve improved?” he murmured in a quiet voice, after finishing his assessment. I assured him he had and asked him to hang on for a few minutes while I calculated his results. It was snowing like crazy outside and it was bitterly cold. This young man sat looking out the window, watching the flakes drift down. The only sound to be heard was the scratching of my pencil across the paper as I tallied his results. While he fiddled with a pencil, he took a deep breath and said, “Ms. Vossy, why did you become a teacher?”


That stopped me. At first, I was speechless, I didn’t know how much to share with him. However, seeing the sincerity on his face and his readiness to listen, I put my pencil down, took my own deep breath, and gave him my answer: “When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who shamed me. She made me feel like I was stupid because I couldn’t do math, like I wasn’t worth her time. I realized that I never wanted another kid to feel that way in a classroom."


I thought I could make learning fun for students. I thought it would be great if I could provide a safe learning environment where no child would ever feel they weren’t smart enough, and where every kid knew they mattered.” You might think that my response was overly wordy, but the empathetic, reflective look on my student’s face told me that I’d struck a chord inside him. He played with a fidget on the desk, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “Well, I think you’re a good teacher. You listen and you’re nice. I don’t even like reading and writing that much, but you make it fun.” I was speechless. Before I could reply, he took a deep breath and continued, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do when I’m older. I think I’d like to be a counselor and help kids like me.” My heart had pretty much melted by then, so I replied, “I think you’d make an excellent counselor.” He smiled shyly, and we proceeded to go over his assessment results, which were amazing.


Some of you may wonder the purpose me of sharing my why. The point is this: I see myself in many of my students. I see the students who are trying to process their trauma. I see the students who are afraid to be noticed. I see the students who are afraid of making a mistake. I see the students who are afraid of being labeled as unworthy and unteachable. I see them, because I WAS them. Teaching at Chaddock School is different than teaching anywhere else. As I plan my lessons and activities, I try to think like a fifth and sixth grader. I try to think about what interests them. I listen to things my students talk about and I try to incorporate those topics into my lessons. I try my best to consider the social and emotional needs of my students and how to meet them where they are at any given hour of the day. We take one hour at a time in my classroom. If that means rearranging the schedule, or throwing it completely out of the window to do some calming activities, that’s what we do.


Somedays, I fail when I miss something a kid is trying to tell me with their behavior.


Other days, I feel like I inspired them to become a life-long learner.


It’s exhausting, invigorating, and emotional, all at the same time. There are also days when I think I haven’t made one bit of difference…and then a student comes along, and asks me a simple question, and my past reminds me: every child deserves a chance.


Editorial Note:

At Chaddock we talk a lot about our “why” because we know the value of knowing, and at least exploring, why you come to work every day; Michael Jr. said “When you know your why, your what has more impact because you are walking in, or towards your purpose”. When we find ourselves in a state of struggle, conflict, or disequilibrium, we ask “do my actions match my why?” When we are struggling to understand a child, when we are in a moment of conflict with another person, or when we feel out of balance, the question to ask is: are my behaviors in line with my “why”? Usually, when we dig deep enough, we find that somehow our behaviors and our intent are misaligned. By reflecting on this we can often take the first step in finding resolution.


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