Teaching is one of those professions that takes at least as much as it gives, and there are as many tough days as rewarding ones – though sometimes those show up at the same time.
These 17 teachers are sharing the students who challenged them in ways they didn’t expect, and who changed their outlook on teaching as a result.
17. Some kids need slack.
“I’ve never been a teacher to shy away from making contact with home. I’d probably make a few calls a week in the past. However, it became an inevitable daily part of the job this year during the pandemic. Between the more frequent phone calls and the video conferences I was holding with my students, I became more intimately acquainted with the homes of my students.
What I learned quickly is that more of my students than I’d ever imagined were living in dirty, loud, smoke-filled homes. It was common for other individuals in the home to yell, cuss, walk by on camera with no shirt on, and demand the students get off the computer during class to go walk a dog, watch a sibling, or run an errand.
After this year, I will never be super firm about a due date again, and every kid will have the chance to re-submit work. I don’t know how they get anything done in those homes, and I won’t be the teacher who holds them accountable when they’re struggling to focus in places like that.
I was vigilant for things I could (and must) report to my administrators, counselors, or protective services, but most of the time, it wasn’t enough to report outside of explaining why the kids were having a hard time.
I had numerous parents scream at me on camera in front of an entire online class. I do want to stress appropriate reports and documentation were always made.” —Anonymous, West Virginia
16. More teachers should do this.
“High school English teacher here. When I was a student, my teachers would often do ‘popcorn’ reading, where students would read aloud and then throw the reading to their peers by saying, ‘Popcorn so-and-so.’
It was generally a fun way to keep students engaged. While student-teaching, I decided to have students popcorn read a passage from a novel. A student popcorned his classmate, who clearly looked very embarrassed and hesitated before reading aloud.
Within the first few seconds, I could tell that this student must struggle with a form of dyslexia — he stumbled over many words and seemed to guess what word he was reading by the first two or three letters. After realizing how humiliating this could be for students who struggle with reading challenges, I now read passages aloud myself and then ask students if they would like to read aloud (which they can decline).
I also gave that particular student the role of stopping and starting any audiobook I played.”
15. It’s so easy.
“After learning of some students I had that were trans but too scared to go by anything but their dead names and old pronouns, I added a place for preferred names and pronouns on a ‘Getting to Know You’ assignment that I give at the beginning of the year.
Only I see it, and I privately ask if I can use their preferred name and pronouns in class. It makes SUCH a difference for some kids.
It is so easy to do. I don’t care who the attendance sheet says you are. Who do YOU say you are?”
14. Get to know them first.
“It was my first year teaching at a Philadelphia public school. Our school had a uniform policy that banned hooded sweatshirts. I had one student who came into class for first period every day with a hoodie and consistently refused to take it off. Being a first-year teacher, I was told to not seem weak and be consistent in enforcing rules.
Each day he came in with the sweatshirt, I’d ask him to remove it. He wouldn’t, and I’d call a dean to have him removed from class. It was a toxic loop that went on for a few weeks.
Finally, a veteran teacher came to talk to me. She told me she knew that this particular student was experiencing intermittent houselessness and was currently at a spot that did not have heat. ‘This baby is cold, not defiant.’
It smacked me like a Mack truck. From that moment on, I realized how important it is to build relationships with students so that you know what’s going on in their home life. It’s the only way to be an effective teacher.”
13. Keep learning.
“I’ve been teaching students with disabilities, including intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, autism, TBI, and OHI. My students are high school-aged but cognitively and sometimes emotionally function at preschool to third-grade levels.
A lot of my students have ADHD or exhibit stimming behaviors. I used to be super strict about making sure the kids were exhibiting ‘normal peer behavior’ which essentially meant I was refusing them from participating in activities that calmed and regulated them.
I started following an autism advocacy page on Facebook and learned so much about how what I was doing was actually harmful.
I now don’t care if my students stim or need to regulate themselves in a non-traditional way to what schools expect. Also, I don’t expect eye contact when I’m teaching because I know that can be very difficult for some kids to maintain, but I know they are still listening.”
12. An easy thing to skip.
“I am a primary teacher and have a student who was in a car accident with her mother. Her mother unfortunately passed away. I am now fully aware of the many different kinds of families out there and am trying to steer clear from ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘parents’ language. I also am not going to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day like we usually do.
Too many kids out there don’t have a mom or dad to celebrate, and I think it is incredibly important to consider that.”
11. Do it for everyone.
“I had my first trans student whose name on record clearly did not match their identity. It made me reconsider how I called roll on the first day of class — because the last thing I wanted to do was out someone. Now, I call first-day roll by last name, and I ask each student to share their preferred name and pronouns (doing my part to normalize that!).
I’ve since had several other trans students who have told me that they really appreciated the discretion.
And after *years* of me campaigning for it, my college now has a policy where students can have their preferred names on their logins, even if it’s not yet their legal name!”
10. It hurts your heart.
“I became a teacher after I had two children of my own. I had to do a 20-hour practicum in a sixth-grade class, working on reading and comprehension with a particularly tough set of kids. I gave them an assignment that I was going to check on the next day. Out of seven kids, two of them had their assignments. Naturally, I took on my ‘teacher face’ and asked why they didn’t do their work.
There were excuses like, ‘I didn’t have paper at home,’ ‘I had too much work to do in the house,’ and, ‘I didn’t know how.’ So I responded, ‘Why didn’t you ask your parents for help? I’m sure they would have helped if you’d asked,’ and, ‘You can always take paper from another notebook.’
Only one kid spoke up, and his answer will never leave my memory as long as I live. He said, ‘You have to be one of those cookie-baking, PTA mothers who cook dinner every night and do laundry and shit like that, huh?’
I told him that yes, I’d baked my share of cookies and tried to fix supper at night when I wasn’t just too tired. He then told me that his mother wasn’t ever home, he didn’t know where his dad was, and he took care of his brothers and sisters.
The others in the group then talked about the various but very similar conditions they each lived in. I knew these conditions existed, sure. But in my own little town? In my kids’ school?
I had a whole new outlook from then on. I didn’t graduate for two more years, but I knew then to look for and appreciate the different circumstances kids came from. I never again assumed anything about kids, and that was a really, really good thing to learn.”
9. One size doesn’t fit all.
“I teach college math and used to have strict attendance policies — the ‘four or more absences gets you an F’ kind.
After a few years, I realized that I didn’t care that much about it, and my policy didn’t cause any student to change their behavior. But it did hurt the ones that have a lot going on in their lives, whether that be multiple jobs, families, etc.
“Now, students get what they get, regardless of how often they come to class. I do offer minimal attendance credit as a reward.”
8. Stay out of the way.
“I used to teach writing using a Standard American English rubric, so I expected my students to work toward mastering the formal language. One semester, I had a student whose writing was brilliant beyond his years, insightful and witty, but he couldn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of formal writing.
When I sat down with him one on one to discuss where he could improve, he pointed out the rules from AAVE (African American Vernacular English) he was using. It became really obvious that this kid was doing great, he just spoke another dialect of English at home. After that, I changed my curriculum so students would be graded on their mastery of English as a whole, not just the privileged standard version.
It’s incredible how much students can thrive when we don’t get in their way!”
7. A huge opportunity.
“I taught grade seven for years and told my students that I suffer from depression and anxiety. I discussed what it looked like when I was having a bad day and my coping mechanisms and strategies.
For years, I was the first person any of the intermediate students would go to when they were feeling down. Students struggling with sexuality and issues at home came to me first because they knew I could relate to them.
Lots of parents complained – hello… stigma much?! — but the administration knew that this was a huge opportunity for our students and supported my discussing everything.
I teach younger students now, so I don’t divulge with them, but mental health is still a priority in my daily classroom.”
6. Give them options.
“I teach eighth-grade math. This past year was a struggle for many students. However, I had one student who seemed to be struggling more so than others. When given an assignment, this student would turn it in blank every single time.
Turns out, he had incredibly severe anxiety, and seeing all of the problems on the paper would cause him to shut down. He knew how to solve the problems but couldn’t show me how he got the answer.
For the next quiz, I had the teacher assistant monitor the class while I took this student to a separate room and verbally gave him the problems one at a time.
He was able to verbally walk me through each problem correctly. I’m now adding a question to my beginning of the year student survey, ‘How do you prefer to demonstrate your math abilities? Via pen and paper assignments or verbal demonstration?’
I had spoken to him numerous times, and he would just shrug his shoulders when I asked why he wouldn’t even attempt it. It wasn’t until one day that I was finally able to get an answer out of him.
Not all students show proficiency the same way.”
5. Speak up.
“It’s been more than 20 years later, and I’ll never forget a graduating student from about 15 years ago. He came by my class to say goodbye, and, after exchanging pleasantries (and a thank you for letting me eat lunch in your room every day), he told me about the relentless bullying gay students faced at our high school.
I was gobsmacked; I truly had no idea. When I asked him why he didn’t confide in me any of the many lunch periods he spent in my room, he said, ‘Because it’s just how it is here.’
That conversation so shook me to my core that it started my lifelong journey to be a visible and vocal ally both inside and outside of the classroom.”
4. No more homework.
“The day one of my seventh graders broke down because they couldn’t get their homework done changed everything for me. Their mom and dad worked three jobs apiece, there were four other kids in the house, and this kid took care of all of them while the parents were working.
It’s been six years, and I haven’t given homework since then.
It broke my heart. The homework is not worth it.”
3. A trusted adult.
“On January 6, 2021, we were still on winter break, and I watched the horrific attack on the US Capitol unfold on the news. I was in high school when 9/11 happened. As an adult, I am grateful for the guidance and empathy of my teachers that day.
It occurred to me that my kids weren’t getting that as this was all going down since school was not in session. So I set up a separate GMail address and told them that if they ever needed a trusted adult to talk to, day or night, they could email me, and I would get the email on my phone immediately.
Since setting it up, I’ve had kids come out to me; express concern that they were LGBTQ+, but their parents had a Trump flag in the yard; express anxiety over the fact that they want to get vaccinated, but their parents won’t let them; and more. I don’t always have the answers to help them, but, at least this way, they have an adult they trust to listen that they can get ahold of any time they need to.
I’m a high school band teacher. The 2020-21 school year was really difficult for students nationwide (and worldwide) for obvious reasons. I have always made myself available to kids if they need a trusted adult to talk to.
Oftentimes, the kids will choose to talk to me even after I try to refer them to the school psychologist, simply because they feel more comfortable with me. With all the typical after-school rehearsals, Friday night football games, and Saturday competitions, we’ve spent a LOT of time together, and I usually get to keep kids all 4 years.
However, I have a hard and fast rule that I do not check school email outside of work hours, for my own mental health. (Not because of the kids, but just because, for example, who wants to get an email from their boss when they’re laying in bed at 11 pm after working a 14 hour day on a Saturday? Yeah, not me.) So the separate account works well, especially in a year that’s been so traumatic.”
2. A simple switch.
“I teach high school English. I had a student one year with a pretty severe anxiety disorder.
Their parents told me it was so bad that they might not even ask to go to the bathroom if they needed it. To make sure they felt comfortable, at the start of the year, I told all students that they were old enough to go to the bathroom without having to ask permission.
I also added that if they just needed a break or to stretch their legs, they were free to leave the classroom as well.
I was a bit worried about students taking advantage of this, but no one did. The feedback they gave me was that they felt respected.
The original student’s parents told me it really helped their kid feel more comfortable and autonomous. Now, I do it every class.”
1. Give freely.
“My first year teaching, I had two much older mentors who guided me toward nit-picky rules like not giving pencils or refusing late work. I thought that was how you did things until I realized that some kids truly don’t have someone at home giving them school supplies, checking homework, and a hundred other variables. Now I give supplies out freely.
Even if it’s to the same kid every dang day!”
These are some amazing stories. How fortunate they all were to find each other.
If you’re a teacher and have a similar story, share it with us in the comments!