They Can Still Grow

My wife and I are both school teachers.  We teach in separate districts but thankfully our spring breaks fell on the same week this year.  As a result, we took a trip today to Old Man’s Cave in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio.  It is a beautiful area and I highly recommend the trip.

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The entire hike surrounds you with the beautiful scenery you see above.  My daughter Miley loved the waterfalls.  I was amazed by the size of the rock that towers over Old Man’s Cave.  Story says a man lived underneath that rock and I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to camp out under there.  Of all the wonder there was to see there, it was a small tree that stuck out the most to me.  I paused briefly to snap a picture of that tree as it literally appeared to be growing on a small outcropping of rock that made up the humongous overhang of rock known as Old Man’s Cave.

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The pictures don’t do it justice to how resilient that tree must be.  I know it’s difficult to see, but above the tree is even more rock.  In fact, there was really no more room to grow, so you can see the tree just turned down and has continued to grow down over the edge of the cliff.  I wondered how it received any water, but it must receive just enough rain to survive at that location.  As soon as I saw this tree, I was reminded of my students that were born into rocky situations.  I thought of those students whose life has placed them in a situation that seems insurmountable.  I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent the first year of my career substitute teaching at a juvenile detention facility.  All of the students at that facility were court ordered.  It’s been six years since I’ve spent any significant time teaching in that setting but I remember those experiences like it was yesterday.  In fact, I can’t imagine what my career would have been like without that experience.  My commute, at the time, was 30 minutes one way.  I can recall many drives home where I left the radio off and reflected on the conversations I had with those students.  To consider that for nearly all of that population, those 9-12 months are the best months of their lives, it’s overwhelming.  The mark left by students that were leaving that facility will never heal.  The tears that landed at my feet will never dry.  See, many of those students grew up in situations similar to the tree I noticed today.  I needed the reminder that students can grow even under the most insurmountable conditions.  I think our students need that reminder too.  I can’t summarize all that I learned from my teaching experience in institutional education, but I know it allowed me to develop an intense passion for reaching those students that live in conditions that would appear to deny them of any opportunities for growth.  I wish I had a magic recipe, but I don’t.  I know it requires resilience on the part of the student and the teacher.  And I know it requires your heart.  Growth won’t occur in the absence of our heart.  Here are my suggestions on ways you can give those students your heart:

  • Be sure your classroom policies and procedures take into consideration the conditions in which those students go home to each day.
  • If you can’t be anything else to those students, be a smiling face and a listening ear.  You may be the only person that smiles and listens.
  • Don’t allow your upbringing to shape your attitude towards those less fortunate.  Give others your heart not because they are like you but because they are unlike you.
  • Colossians 4:6 has been a permanent fixture on my white board for two years now: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, so that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.  Nothing strikes harder than the tongue.  Guard your tongue, especially when considering those students facing uncertainty at home.  Will what you say bring you closer to that student or take you further from that student?

12 thoughts on “They Can Still Grow

  1. I really enjoyed your blog. Thank you so much for sharing. I had a similar experience, and I am so thankful that I did. It has given me very valuable insight in ways that will help me better serve students. Your post initially caught my attention because it included Hocking Hills. We spent our vacation there last summer. Thank you for reminding me that each step that I’ve taken along the way in order to get where I want to be was so very valuable.

    Blessings to you and yours,
    Rhonda

  2. My son got married in Old Man’s Cave about 7 years ago. It is very beautiful there, and he and his family go there, at least, once a year to get away from it all. I am an adult institutional educator who sees many of the students that you would have had in a juvenile facility. Sometimes I just listen to them talk to each other and I realize that the homes they came from are places that weren’t acceptable to most of us. It breaks my heart when I hear them say that above all, they just wanted to fit in somewhere. I’ve also had them tell me that I am the first teacher that would take the time to explain things to them. So teachers, I know how difficult it is to have 30 students in your room working with a couple that are talking, or can’t sit still, or just can’t concentrate. Sometimes all you need to do is explain things, one on one, and they just might understand what to do. Don’t just send them out of your class because they are disruptive. You could be that one teacher that makes a difference in their life.

    • Well said Pam! Thanks so much for sharing! You are a choice servant in the world of education, that is for sure!

  3. I so enjoyed your pictures and your thoughts. Over the past 25 years, I have been a teacher and an administrator in schools on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to socio-economic status. I learned a lot from my experiences in both. There is NOTHING like the feeling you get when you run into a former student with whom you spent hours and hours trying to convince that he or she is important and smart and worthy, even if he or she doesn’t hear it at home. When the now adult tells you that he or she remembers that afternoon in your office where you just listened… We really do have the best job in the world. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Thanks very much Melissa! I needed the reminder as well! I too often lose sight of the main thing. Thanks so much for your feedback!

  4. Well said! One of the most often used EXCUSES of a teacher is “that student does not have a good home life. There is nothing I can do….” and they give up. Truly because it is the Road Less Traveled and least resistance – just like your tree. Pretty sure that tree did not ask to grow on the rock like that. Just where it started. But once again, that tree has now affected you and others with it’s accomplishments. (don’t ever tell me that there is not an overall plan – just have to keep your eyes & ears open) Carpi diem!

  5. Very well stated. We need empathetic leaders and teachers who understand that classroom behavior of students is often a sign and not a personal strike against teachers. Thank you so much for making a difference in the lives of students!

    • Thank you so much! “Not a personal strike against teachers” is a great way to put it. I appreciate your comment!

  6. Derek, these pictures are beautiful, much like your reminders of grace. Thank you for not becoming bitter from your experiences in the juvenile detention facility. Thank you for remembering that kids are kids, who are still learning and moldable. Thank you for being a positive role model for your students and for us, your blog readers and PLN members. Thank you for being you!
    Jennifer

    • Thanks so much Jennifer! I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from some amazing leaders like you. I appreciate your feedback!

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