The passion that drives me as a teacher

My passion in the classroom is to help my students feel comfortable and appreciated. If they're comfortable, they're more likely to succeed. (Public domain photo)

My passion in the classroom is to help my students feel comfortable and appreciated. If they’re comfortable, they’re more likely to succeed. (Public domain photo)

My family moved during the summer between my fifth and sixth grade year.

That meant different surroundings. New friends. A new, traditional school that was WAY different than the Montessori-style school I had attended.

Going to a new school is bad enough, but being the new kid in sixth grade stinks. Trying to figure out your identity in sixth grade is hard enough. It’s that gray area between being a little kid and being a teenager, and you’re never quite sure which you are on a given day.

I struggled to figure out who my real friends were. As is common in middle school, some were my friends one day and felt like enemies the next day. I endured some bullying (name-calling, books knocked out of my hands, etc.). I didn’t really realize there was a “popular group” of kids until I moved to that school. (Maybe because there wasn’t one at my previous school? Maybe there was and I just didn’t notice it.)

It all ended just fine. I graduated in the top 10 of my class with great friends, my self-esteem intact and a direction for my future. It just wasn’t easy getting there.

As a teacher now, I don’t consciously think about it. On a subconscious level, though, I think those uncomfortable middle school years linger pretty much every day. They serve a purpose, though.

I want my students to feel comfortable, appreciated and noticed in my classroom. (Flickr /

I want my students to feel comfortable, appreciated and noticed in my classroom. (Flickr /

I want my students to feel comfortable, to feel appreciated, to feel noticed in my classroom.

It’s the passion that drives everything I do and the essence of who I am as a teacher.

I teach Spanish, and learning a foreign language can be challenging and uncomfortable. Learning new content in any class is a struggle, but it’s challenging when you can’t even say that new content using the standards of pronunciation you’re used to. Throw in trying to speak in Spanish in front of peers and there’s a reason so many people say, “I just can’t do foreign languages.”

It’s my goal to defeat that “Spanish isn’t my thing” mentality.

To do that, I study my students. I try my best to remember important happenings in their lives. More importantly, I try to bring those happenings up in conversation later in the year to prove that I really remembered them. (That’s tough, because my memory is really, really bad. Just ask my poor wife, who is VERY patient with me.)

I try to mitigate the mistakes that they make so they don’t get frustrated and shut down. I’m constantly trying to re-frame what they see as “the wrong answer” (or maybe “another example of why I’m wrong all the time”). I try to help them see it as “here’s how I know you’re making progress” or “this is why it was on the right track.”

I smile. I pat kids on the back. I tell them how impressed I am when they use a fancy vocabulary word or a tricky grammar concept.

Notice in most of those examples that I say, “I try.” I fail at helping my students feel comfortable, appreciated and noticed on a regular basis. I used to let that failure cripple me by getting that “another example of why I’m wrong all the time” mentality my students adopt at times. Now, I try to notice, embrace and learn from those failures and try to do better in the future. I’m constantly telling myself that I can only do the best that I can do in the hours I’m given to do it.

People think of me as a techie teacher, but I don’t do it for technology’s sake. (Although I do love a new, shiny gadget as much as the next guy!) I try to use those tools to draw out my students’ creativity and abilities. But I also use it to help them feel comfortable. Students who wouldn’t dare raise their hand to participate in a discussion will share in a backchannel conversation on TodaysMeet. Some express themselves best when they can sit down and compose their thoughts in a post on KidBlog.

Comfort isn’t everything. Some would argue that if you get too comfortable, you get stagnant or complacent. There’s some truth to that, but those high school years my students face can shape their identities as adults.

Their lives tend to be messy, complicated and stressful. I want my classroom to be a sanctuary where they feel they can be themselves.

I want my classroom to be the refuge I wish I had as the new kid in middle school.

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  • Adam says:

    Matt: Great post!!! What a great way to inspire others. I am sharing this with my staff as we are at the end of one quarter and about to start a new one. This is great food for thought, especially as we start the new quarter with a “clean slate.” As always, great to follow your work! Thanks!!

  • Jennifer Tait says:

    I loved your post, Matt, about being the new kid on the block! Our own children were born and had lived nowhere else but the town they were born in and in the same house we brought them home to until we moved almost 12 years ago due to their dad’s job. We had a son going into 6th grade and our daughters were going into 8th and 10th grades. I worried about our daughters because they were the ones who had only a few close friends they were leaving and I wanted to make sure that they had the opportunity to develop those types of friendships in their new school. Our son was the one that I should have been worried about; yes, he had a close set of friends but he was the laid back kid who made friends easily so I just knew he would be fine. Oh how wrong this momma was!

    Fast forward 11 years and our son is a once again happy young man who has found a niche in life with archery and will graduate from Purdue next spring. Was it easy getting him to this point, not always and yes, he did cause his parents many grey hairs and sleepless nights and his sisters more embarrassment than I probably know. Thankfully, for our son and our two daughters we had teachers who came alongside them and gave them the encouragement that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Those teachers gave them the “safe” classroom environment to come to when life was tough; some from their own making and some not so much.

    When I went back to the classroom ten years ago, I made it my mission to make my classroom a safe place. Until three years ago, I did not have my own classroom and had to share space because I was a half-time teacher and there was no “space” for me. When we renovated our school, I finally got my own classroom where I could make it home with lamps, posters, positive encouragement, etc. Yes, I still walk around my classroom all of the time patting students on the back and doing some pretty goofy stuff to let them know that even at 57 years old you don’t always have it all together (example: talking about personality colors and I said “so all of you white people move to this side of the room” and the one black kid in my class stops in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips and just stares at me and says “so what am I suppose to do.” Oops!)

    Thank you, Matt, and to all of the other teachers who are reading this who give our young adults a place to feel safe and a place to breathe from all of the chaos and clutter that invades their lives.

  • Rachel Hall says:

    I look up to your teaching greatness so to hear you say ” I fail at helping my students feel comfortable, appreciated and noticed on a regular basis.” makes ME feel better. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like I fail on a regular basis. 🙂 Thanks for the insightful and personal message.

  • Chaz says:

    “I want my classroom to be the refuge I wish I had as the new kid in middle school.” Indeed! Interesting that what might have appeared as one of our greatest struggles turns out to be the source of our greatest gifts!

  • Oh Matt!!! Tears are brewing in my eyes. What a beautiful piece and even more the comments! You must cherish them so. There is so much to being a teacher we don’t always let others in on. Even when we are such incredible sharers of amazing ideas, like you. There is so much here. So much that just shouts why I am drawn to you words and why your students must know everyday how lucky they are. So much empathy and deep reflection on who they are allows to to meet them where they are and be there for them. How incredibly lucky they are to have you, your deep passion and constant strive to improve your craft. Such a great post. Thank you so much for sharing!!!