Courageous Hearts: Teachers Write about Their Work
by Sam Intrator & Megan Scribner
Each and every day teachers show up in their classrooms with a relentless sense of optimism. Despite the complicated challenges of schools, they come to and remain in the profession inspired by a conviction that through education they can move individuals and society to a more promising future.
In Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, a diverse group of 90 teachers describe the complex of emotions and experiences of the teaching life – joy, outrage, heartbreak, hope, commitment and dedication. Each heartfelt commentary is paired with a cherished poem selected by the teacher.
The contributors represent a broad array of educators: K-12 teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, as well as many non-traditional teachers. They range from first year teachers to mid-career veterans to those who have retired after decades in the classroom. They come from inner-city, suburban, charter and private schools.
Here are four reflections from Teaching with Heart, all with connections to the middle grades. (Click on the poem title to read the entire poem.)
Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, to make much of Time
Reflection by Cordell Jones
Alamo Heights Junior School
San Antonio, Texas
As a child, I saw the direct impact my mother had as a teacher. She inspired her students. She helped change their lives, and they often came back to see her or would write to tell her so. I was in awe of the impact she had on them.
I yearned to have that type of impact on the world. Flash forward a decade. As a college student, I saw Dead Poet’s Society starring Robin Williams. I was mesmerized. I loved how he inspired his students to think for themselves, be passionate learners, and challenge the status quo. I can still close my eyes and hear him talking about Robert Herrick’s poem and exhorting his students to imagine the impact they might have on the world: “Did [these former students] wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? . . . Carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
Was I going to go through life without making an impact? Certainly not!
Every August I watch Dead Poet’s Society to ground and motivate me for the challenges I will face during the upcoming school year, asking myself: What will my impact be on this year? How can I best help the children and the teachers in my school? How can I help change the world each and every day, knowing that tomorrow I might be gone?
Carpe diem is my mantra. For almost twenty-five years, this poem has shaped me and pushed me to be my very best for my students, my staff, and my family.
Edgar A. Guest’s It Couldn’t Be Done
Reflection by Glendean Hamilton
Middle School English
I asked my eighth-grade class, “Who wants to go to college?” All of my students immediately raised their hands. I then asked, “How many of you believe you can do it?” Most of the hands fluttered down.
I was just a student teacher, but at that moment I recognized that classroom management and lesson planning weren’t my only challenges. I had to motivate my students to believe that as long as they tried their hardest at a seemingly impossible task, the task could be done.
For this message to be meaningful, I had to make it personal. To make an impact, I couldn’t only be Ms. Hamilton. I had to once again be the young girl who had dreams of college in the midst of a school environment that didn’t support that dream. I had to let them see me as a young immigrant girl, being raised in a single parent household in the Bronx, watching my mom work relentlessly to provide for me while simultaneously encouraging me to study, to work hard in everything, and to dream.
Education was never presented to me as a choice. It was presented as an opportunity to shatter the statistics that would claim me as less than the potential that resided within me.
I believe there is nothing my students can’t do. My job is to get my students to dream of a life and future beyond what they know. I know they can do it. And I am the proof.
John Daniel’s A Prayer among Friends
Reflection by Melissa Madenski
Author & Poet
Middle School Writing Teacher
For almost 40 years, I have walked into unlikely classrooms that aren’t mine for long. I began my career teaching elementary and middle school students in the public schools. But when my husband died and our children were young, I fell into the role of an adjunct writing and resource instructor.
Since then, I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools; English as a second language classrooms; art schools; colleges; community colleges; and jails. I have taught in heated and unheated rooms, in dance studios and old equipment closets.
Whatever the setting, I have to be ready to quickly create a safe environment for students, a place where our lives will briefly interact. Every time I turn the doorknob (or get buzzed in at the jail), I pause and ask for the ability to teach this group, these students, in the way they need so that the lessons and learning can be carried away and used long after we part.
It is temporary, sometimes lonely work. Most often, I work in isolation, not knowing my colleagues or staff. John Daniel’s poem makes me feel a part of a tribe, of something larger. It helps me understand that this group, this day, this lesson is the only one. If I leave having accomplished the “gift of good work,” it is enough for me and the students I teach. My copy of this poem is in my wallet, the paper worn thin. I find it is useful not only for teaching but also for beginning every day.
Calvin Coolidge’s Persistence
Reflection by April Niemela
Middle and High School Teacher
English Language Arts
It’s just after spring break when I scrawl this poem on the whiteboard. We are three-quarters through the school year, but for many students it feels like it’s already over. For the dejected and the defeated, the ones whose grades are irredeemable, there’s little reason to try. And even for me, their teacher with the irrepressible optimism, it seems a bit more difficult to persist, to insist that all of my students continue to give their all. So up it goes, a reminder to us all that we need—no matter what—to “press on.”
My classroom walls are covered with evidence of persistence from literary figures like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, entrepreneurs like Walt Disney, scientists like Albert Einstein, political figures like Abraham Lincoln, and sports heroes like Michael Jordan, all of whom overcame obstacles through diligence and determination.
But there’s something about the fourth quarter of the school year that needs that solid, obstinate, in-your-face declaration that talent, genius, and education alone do not seal the deal. It’s dogged persistence in the face of adversity—the refusal to give up—that wins the day.
I may teach literary analysis and close reading strategies, but day in and day out I teach students these survival skills, this resilience, this refusal to give up the dream. I teach grit.
And when I’m tempted—to accept less on an assignment or to look the other way, or, heaven forbid, to give up on a student—these words echo in my head: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”
Read more poems and reflections from Teaching with Heart at The Center for Courage and Renewal website. This free PDF download includes the Foreword by Parker J. Palmer and the Introduction by Taylor Mali.
About the Editors
Sam M. Intrator is principal of the Smith College Campus School, and professor of education and child study at Smith College. A Kellogg National Leadership Fellow, he is the author/editor of seven books, including The Quest for Mastery: Positive Youth Development Through Out-of-School Programs.
Megan Scribner has three decades of experience editing books, reports, and essays, including co-editing three teaching-related poetry anthologies with Sam Intrator: Teaching with Heart, Teaching with Fire and Leading from Within. She’s been a PTA leader in her Maryland community and organized yearly high school “after prom” parties to offer a safe place for juniors and seniors each May.