On my walk to work, I would pass by an elementary school right in front of our home everyday. And each time, I am reminded of my experience as a public school teacher. Every single day in the classroom is a different experience of triumphs and struggles: the joy of seeing a student smile upon knowing she can correctly read her first story after weeks of practice; the glow in the eyes of a student who finally understands the process of division after countless exercises; the deep sighs you see from students still struggling to get multiplication right after months of trying. All these and more make up for what I want to share about what I learned about grit and perseverance in my time as a public school teacher.
On knowing your “why”
I handled a low-performing fifth grade class of 43 and taught Mathematics to three other classes. At the start of the school year, I gave my class five rules to follow to create an atmosphere and culture that promoted growth inside the classroom. The rules were simple. First, be respectful; second, keep the room clean and orderly; third, use kind words; fourth, participate; and last, be responsible. These rules built the core of what I wanted my class, and ultimately each student, to become at the end of the school year. In every challenge we encountered, I always brought them back to our rules, reminding them of what we wanted to achieve at the end of the year.
And that is one thing I learned about achieving your goals: know very clearly the values behind your goals, and always go back to it whenever difficulties arise. This will entail taking a step back every now and then to see if you are putting effort in the right places, where you need to improve, and what you need to let go. There will be days where frustration takes over my desire to teach a lesson— whether it be students not behaving the way I want them to, or having to deal with things I cannot control like how their parents or guardians treat them. All of these contributed to the frustration I felt towards my students, and also myself. But at the end of my lowest days, I took a step back and re-assessed where we were in achieving our goals. And by some magic, I would find the fuel to push forward the next day by doing this.
On knowing your locus of control
When I was a student, I used to get frustrated with lessons that I could not fully understand even after days of practice. Being a teacher, I never knew how it can be even more frustrating to see your students give you blank stares and creased foreheads days after teaching the same lesson. After a few days, I asked one student who stopped listening altogether after a few attempts at understanding the topic what he was having difficulty with. He was quiet for a few seconds before telling me that he was hungry. His mother needed to work extra hours and wasn’t able to prepare food for him. He was like this for a few more days, and all I could do was give him some of my baon to relieve even just a bit of his hunger so he could focus on learning.
As I got to know my students more and more throughout the year, I learned about their struggles, about their families, and about their aspirations. I learned that some of my students were neglected by their parents, and left to be taken cared of by their godparents or grandparents. These are things that I realized I have no control over. What I had was our classroom. And so I worked on making the classroom a healthy place where they could try without being judged—a safe space where they can learn and work at getting better.
One thing I learned about being in the classroom is that when you are faced with difficulties, it is important to know your locus of control—the things in your life that you have control over. There will be things and circumstances in life that you will find you have no way of controlling. What matters is how you respond to the things you can change that will help you achieve your goal.
More than the classroom being a learning space for my students, it was also a learning space for me. My time in the classroom gave me the chance to know myself through my students. It has given me lessons that I will carry as I move forward with my life. And as I walk to work, and see the eyes of those children, I will always remember the stories of hope the I shared with my students. They will always be a part of who I am.