Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 30 2011

Someday you will read this

Dear math superstars of room 313,

Thank you for an amazing summer. Thank you for believing in me, in my collab, and most importantly, in yourselves. Thank you for showing up bright and early (most of the time) for summer school; for paying attention and wanting to learn, even when I failed to plan purposefully or deliver explicit directions or bring energy to the classroom; and for absolutely and unequivocally disproving the haze of low expectations that surrounds those who look or speak like you, those who grow up in your neighborhoods and face the trials of your childhood.

Thank you F., for unambiguously being the highlight of my Institute experience. From day one, when you walked into the classroom–having scored a 42% on your diagnostic–and miserably failed my exit slip on adding and subtracting integers, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. When you wrote a note to me on your second failed exit slip, telling me that you don’t like answering questions or asking for help in front of others, I invited you to tutoring before class instead–and you accepted. Oh what a difference it made. Soon you were answering questions during class, correcting and guiding your peers on some of the most difficult objectives of the summer, and sharing your hopes and ambitions with me. I’m not ashamed to admit that when you saw the big “92%” on your final exam and smiled wider than I had ever seen you smile, I almost cried. Thank you for being my inspiration.

Thank you K., for pushing through to the end, despite your many academic and disciplinary hurdles. You missed the two days of school leading up to the final because of a suspension that I’m still not clear about, and because of that, I wasn’t able to give you the review that would have enabled you to meet your growth goal. But throughout the summer, you displayed utter exuberance every time you passed an exit slip on an objective that you had demonstrated 0% mastery of on the diagnostic. More importantly, you never accepted less than your very best, even though you knew that you were already starting far behind most of your peers. I pray that you will return to the classroom in the fall with an understanding that good character is just as important as, if not more so than, academic perseverance.

Thank you Y., for showing me that every child, no matter how unruly, has pure intentions at heart. Thank you especially for the genuine conversation that we had when my collab tried to force you to sit at the isolated desk and write an apology letter for talking too much during class. You helped me realize that the lessons weren’t challenging enough for you, and helped yourself realize that others in the class might not be as advanced. You weren’t exactly an angel for the rest of summer, but I knew that we had made a connection when you wrote to me on the last day, “Ima mis you even though im such a pain. Hey you got threw to me!”

Thank you J., for consistently being the most engaged and enthusiastic student in my class, even though your classmates often teased you for your awkwardness or your speech impediments, which I later learned you’re receiving therapy for. Whenever I asked a question in class, at no matter what level of rigor, I could always count on your hand to be one of the first in the air. I loved the questions that you and M. peppered me with whenever we ate lunch together: “Is it true that if the sun became a black hole, we would all die? What happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather? I heard that there are a bunch of different dimensions in the universe, can you explain that?” I’m sorry that I was often too distracted with other things to defend you from disparaging remarks during class, but I’m confident that with your spirit and attitude, you will accomplish wonderful things with your life.

Thank you again to all of my students, including the ones I didn’t have the time or energy to mention here. I could write pages and pages about each of you, your strengths and weaknesses, your passions and your pet peeves. I wish I had more than four weeks to spend with you, but alas, such is the structure of Institute. So I leave you with this parting note: keep fighting the good fight. Some may say that you’re dumb; they just haven’t seen how easily you pick up concepts when invested in the material, or how excited you get when you see evidence of your growth. Some may say that you’re rude; they just haven’t observed you unreservedly letting each other borrow paper or a pencil in order to be prepared for class. Some may say that you’re unmotivated; they just haven’t heard you describe your dreams of attending college at Emory or St. John’s or Stanford, and starting careers where you can help other people.

Work hard, be kind, and above all, follow the convictions of your conscience. I’ll check up on you in a few years, and I expect great things.

Mr. K

5 Responses

  1. carol

    james i almost cried reading this :) you’re an awesome teacher <3

  2. Anna

    It is so counterproductive to suspend the kids … especially before the final. Idiotic. :(

  3. Qiong

    Loved your letter, James. Your reflection is so humbling and inspiring. Thanks for sharing :)

    It was really great meeting you at institute. I have no doubt you’re going to be a great teacher. Please keep in touch and good luck to yoU!

  4. Tony


    Teaching is an incredible privilege, and you are the most responsible, disciplined, organized, thoughtful, humble, caring, and resourceful (guitar and spanish coming to mind immediately) to be a great teacher, role model, and an inspiration for young people. We are so proud of you and the kids are so incredibly fortunate to have you!

  5. Two years | Break Every Yoke linked to this post.

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