It’s been a tough year. This past week, the first week of summer, I took a camping trip to the coast. I normally don’t “walk away” so quickly but I needed the time to reflect, to catch my breath. It’s been a long, tough year.

The kids that entered my classroom this past August are not the same kids who left me this June. They’ve grown and matured in amazing ways, ways that cannot and will not be tracked by a summative state test… and that’s ok. They learned coping skills and cooperation. They learned appropriate ways to communicate their emotions, and their needs. They learned that they are worthy of unconditional love and acceptance, but it wasn’t an easy lesson. It’s been a tough year.

The students who came to me in August came with a history. They were “those students,” a cohort I’m sure we’ve all encountered. As a group, they averaged far below grade level in both reading and math. Many of my 5th graders were still mastering regrouping skills in mathematics, let alone multiplication facts. But more than that, they came into the classroom shouldering a collective weight of trauma that no 10 year-old should have to bare. Too many of them had come to believe that adults give up on them. That they aren’t worth anyone’s time. And so, they acted as such.

The first few months were a battle. A stubborn refusal on my part to let up and a relentless push back from them to prove to me that they were right; that eventually I, too, would give up on them. And, believe me, there were days I wanted to. It was a tough year. But sometime in February, we hit a turning point. We had small successes, academic and behavior, then bigger ones. It’s hard sometimes to remember that growth is growth and that small steps are sometimes the most important ones. I had to keep telling myself, “they’ve made a lot of growth.” And they had.

We still encountered problems. This was the year when pencils, erasers and (yes, sadly) chairs were thrown in my classroom. When I spent more time teaching life lessons than grammar. When we had class discussions about kindness and respect and taking care of one another because its what we do. We are a class and that’s just as important as being family. These were new concepts for some of my kiddos. But in the end, we grew together, we spent more time using our words and kind actions to express ourselves and less time being impulsively reactive. It’s been a tough year.

On the last day of school, I looked around at my students and I thought to myself, this is a group of young people I can truly be proud of, even if it’s been a tough year. They worked hard. They grew. They accomplished a lot. Then a student handed me a card. In it she had written: You are the only teacher who ever stood by me. Others followed. Sentiments from students and parents thanking me for being there for them, for their kids. I couldn’t stop the flow of tears as the full impact of the year hit me.

 It occurred to me then that so many people had walked away from these kiddos, they truly believed no one would ever be there for them. What an unfortunate and terribly awful thing to believe at 10. And how many times are we, as teachers, the only adult in a student’s life who sticks by them? After 15 years of teaching, I think I had forgotten just how incredibly impactful our profession is. Each and every day, we make a huge, profound difference. And for some of our kids, we are the only one who stands by them, the only one who believes in their unbridled potential. I became a teacher because of that, because of the magical experience of watching an individual discover and unlock their potential. But somewhere along the line, I got bogged down by the bureaucracy of our profession and lost sight of the real reason I do this… to help young humans be the very best versions of themselves. I was reminded of that this year and thanks to my students, it’s been a good year.