Why I Teach Students, not English

This afternoon I experienced what was probably the most powerful moment of my (admittedly short) teaching career.  It had nothing to do with grammar or literature or reading skills and actually had only a very little to do with the novel we are currently reading.  And yet, this one discussion reminded me of why I wake up at the crack of dawn and do this job everyday.

In my tenth grade classes we are currently reading a novel set in Germany during World War II (I won’t tell you which novel, because I hate spoilers).  In the section we read during class yesterday, a character commits suicide because he is unable to handle his survivor’s guilt and the atrocities he saw at the Battle of Stalingrad.  We discussed his reasons for making this decision and what the author may have wanted us to learn from it yesterday.

Today, we started off class with the following writing prompt:

Is suicide ever a legitimate option?  Why or why not?  What would you do if a friend expressed suicidal thoughts to you?  What are some of the warning signs that someone is considering suicide?  What other harmful things do people do to attempt to deal with depression?  What would you do if a friend was engaging in one of those activities?

When we do these types of writing prompts, students can choose to answer whichever of the questions they want, depending on how they feel that day.  We usually spend a few minutes sharing responses before moving into whatever reading we are doing that day.

Often, I will talk way too much during the sharing.  I respond to what they’ve said, add my own opinions, and steer the conversation in the direction I want it to go for whatever purpose I need it to serve that day.  Recently, I have tried to talk less and let my students guide the discussion.  Going into it today, I was particularly aware of how important it was for me to just listen and encourage, while allowing my students the freedom to talk about what they needed to talk about.

In my first two classes, the discussion went well.  Those who shared had excellent responses, and one student even talked of an experience where he stayed on the phone all night with a friend who was struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Other than that, though, everyone stayed very general and the discussion remained mostly surface-level.  At the end, I gave a bit of my own opinion, encouraging my students to avoid judging and shaming those who struggle with mental illness and exhorting them to work to change the negative stigma that so often seems to accompany depression and other mental illness in our culture.

And then I got to my fifth period class.  Right off the bat, I knew this would be different.  As soon as the timer went off, students who rarely share shot their hands into the air.  We started discussing, and many of the students had chosen to respond to the question about the other ways people attempt to deal with depression.  They brought up drinking and drugs, but also cutting and other forms of self-harm.

We were getting to the point where I needed to stop the discussion if we were going to have enough time for reading, but I still had hands in the air.  I chose to ignore my carefully-scripted objective from my carefully-structured lesson plan and allowed the discussion to continue.

And that’s when it happened.

A girl raised her hand to respond to what someone else had said about what they would do if a friend expressed suicidal thoughts.  She admitted that she had considered suicide before and that it had been the support and love of her best friend who barged into her house uninvited that stopped her.  She talked about how much it meant to her that he had really showed her he cared, even when she couldn’t fully believe the encouraging things he was trying to tell her.

And then a young man admitted that he used to cut himself as a way to deal with the pain and shared his struggle.  A student thanked both of them for sharing, without any prompting from me.  Another student told them that their openness gave her courage and talked about catching her brother self-harming and how she was wrestling with the best way to help him.  Yet another student shared that she, too, had contemplated suicide.

Other students chimed in, asking me and their classmates how best they could help their friends.  What do I do if they don’t believe me when I tell them I care about them?  What do I do if there isn’t an adult in their life who could get them help?  Is there something other than just talking to them and praying for them that I can do?

As I looked out at my students and listened to them share their hearts, I had to fight back tears.  It may not have happened until May, but my classroom was a safe place today.  It was a place where my students felt free to express themselves without any worry of judgement or condemnation.  It was not just a classroom, it was a community.

Eventually the conversation died down, and we had about 20 minutes of our 50 minute class left to get through the section of reading we needed to get through.  We got through most of it, although we didn’t get to go as deep as I normally like to.  We didn’t analyze any figurative language, we didn’t spend a long time talking about how characters’ relationships have changed.  We mostly just read and summarized and made inferences and sat together under the weight of a very serious section of an emotionally taxing book.

My job is difficult.  It is physically, psychologically, and emotionally draining.  There are days when I dread the alarm going off in the morning and I am without a doubt counting down the days until summer.  I often feel inadequate, self-conscious, and woefully unprepared for the challenges I face in education each day.

But it is worth it.

I doubt we mastered today’s objective.  I have no data to show what we did today.  But I don’t care.  I don’t teach English.  I teach the hilarious, frustrating, noisy, rambunctious, infuriating, beautiful, made-in-the-image-of-God teenage souls who sit in my desks day in and day out.

And today, we all learned.

Leave a comment


  1. Joel Altsman

     /  May 8, 2012

    Wow! A wonderful day your students will remember long after they forget the name of the book or the author. All because you really do care about them and they recognize it. Way to go, Teacher!!

  2. Moving!!! I’m a prospective English teacher looking into Teach For America. I’m really impressed with what you’re doing in the classroom — exploring very real, deep, and relevant truths in life through literature. This excites and terrifies me even more!

    • rachelheather

       /  May 8, 2012

      Jake –

      I’d love to answer any questions you may have about Teach for America or teaching in general. Shoot me an email if you have any questions – raltsman (at) gmail (dot) com

  3. Gaynelle

     /  May 8, 2012

    So proud of you having the patience to wait for the teens to be ready and willing to talk and work it through with them instead of just saying..oops! Times up! We have to finish the lesson. I’m sure they will have learned more from their sharing than from class instruction. Praise God you are there to be part of that! It could have life transforming results!

  4. Chloe Silva

     /  May 9, 2012

    I don’t even know what to say, Rachel, except that getting people of any age to open up like this in a group is just an amazing feat no matter the context. The fact that you are getting kids to connect the tough stuff going on in their world with a book and to (hopefully) use literature as a method of finding a way through it is simply beautiful. I absolutely teared up while reading this. I hope you are doing well these days (I association-stalk you via Sam, so I think this is the case) and thank you so much for sharing this.


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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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