The Unseen Work of a Teacher

The Unseen Work of a Teacher


A few years ago I heard a call-in radio show honoring teachers. A Michigan man with a slight Arab accent told a story I can’t forget.

In the 1970s, when he was in elementary, his family moved from Iraq to Michigan.

Can. You. Imagine?

One day at school his teacher had pulled down the world map at the front of the classroom and explained the rules for a geography game.

The students would come in pairs to the front of the classroom and stand with their backs to the map and faces towards their classmates. The teacher would announce a capitol city, and both students would whip around and point to the correct location on the map. The first one with their finger on the correct place won.

Having been in the United States for less than a year the young boy knew he would lose. When it was his turn, he planned to turn and point to the exact same place his competitor was pointing. And even if they were both wrong, at least they’d be wrong together.

When it was his turn, he and his competitor waited with backs toward the map. The teacher gave the location: “Baghdad, Iraq.”

He knew exactly where to point.

I have a long list of questions for that teacher.

When did she decide to demonstrate that variety of kindness? Did it just occur to her? Did she plan for it?

Did she double check to see where it was marked on her world map while the students were at recess?

Did she hand pick the boy’s competitor—an exceptionally gracious child who would understand her method? A particularly intelligent student who might have a chance of knowing? An emotionally mature student who wouldn’t be embarrassed at not knowing?

This is the unseen work of a teacher.

It goes unnoticed by everyone except the student who was forever impacted. But on occasion, long after the teacher has retired, the grown-up student takes the opportunity to recount his story. This one just happened to be on a national radio show.

It wasn’t until I worked nearly 20 weeks as a substitute teacher that I gained a jarring appreciation of what truly goes on in a classroom.

On the surface there are the subjects that get all the press: Standardized testing. Educational benchmarks. Curriculum.

If we don’t take a closer look we might be tempted to think the only thing happening inside those cinderblock walls is a sterile approach to cognitive development.

No one will argue that reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, (though no longer taught to the tune of a hickory stick), are foundational. But I have seen teachers researching, learning, and sometimes flying by the seat of their pants to implement ideas that go far beyond facts, figures and vocabulary.

Their efforts are often unnoticed, but they are aimed at the reason for education: the students.

For the perfectionistic student who is extremely sensitive even to constructive criticism, a teacher explains that criticism does not mean failure. Instead it is evidence of learning, and that is exactly what school is for. This is the unseen work of the teacher.

For the passive student who cannot articulate his needs, a teacher encourages him to find his voice. “Use your words,” she will say. She equips him with a simple script to help him give words to his wishes. This is the unseen work of a teacher.

For the unmotivated student, a teacher draws a hard line to help the student learn to discover answers. And as a token of thanks, the student stomps back to the desk and slams the book closed. This is the unseen work of a teacher.

For the new student, the teacher accounts for what has previously been taken for granted. She describes localities such as the “Discovery Center.” She realizes a student from Georgia may not yet know that Sioux Falls is east and Rapid City is west. An international student may sing a rousing rendition of “God Save the Queen” or “O Canada” but may need help learning the lyrics and meaning of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This is the unseen work of a teacher.

And for each of these unnoticed efforts there is no standardized test. There are no bonuses based on scoring. The test, the answer, and the reward are as unique as the individual. The test comes every day for the rest of the student’s life. Sometimes the students get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. And the occasional bonus for such unseen work comes from the student: A priceless hug, the evidence of effort, a diploma.

Teachers, we appreciate you. For the work that is seen and scored and paid for, but also for that which is rarely seen, measured, or rewarded. Thanks for doing the unseen work of teaching.


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