During the first stress-laden three weeks of school, the ACE Indianapolis community made its way through all eight Harry Potter movies. I loved Harry Potter when I was in elementary school but I hadn’t seen any of the movies or read any of the books in a decade. While the movies were really for background noise as we planned and came to know each other, the glimpses of brightly colored spells and the familiar movements of the soundtrack brought back the dormant feelings of enchantment and adventure buried in the childhood section of my brain.
Time spent on movies and lesson plans pushed aside the important question I had tucked away under my deep pile of papers to grade: “Why did I become a teacher?” The answer seemed clear before I started ACE. When I was in middle and high school, I had wonderful instructors who pushed me academically but I was an angsty, confused teen who needed compassion as much as well-prepared lessons. But in college, I had teachers who challenged me to be creative, who encouraged me to take ownership of my work, who taught me to focus on learning instead of grades and who affirmed me in my dignity as a child of God. I wanted to teach so that I could make sure that every student, no matter their age, would come to understand the value of educating their whole person, to help them love their learning and to know that their beloved status as a child of God could never be taken away.
Facing the professional responsibilities of being a new teacher, ideals get swept under the rug quickly. Flash to September 14th and I’m handing my first unit test back to my eighth graders. They’ve been begging for days to see their grades. I start handing back papers and I return several F’s face down to students who studied hard. I feel like I should be destroyed on the inside, but in the moment, I’m more worried about getting angry emails from their parents. As they rush out of the classroom, I finally start to take in those disappointed faces. Have I already failed these kids? Have I already forgotten what it’s like to be a middle schooler? Am I already contributing to the problems in education that I wanted to fix?
I was still chewing over my failures the next morning when my sixth-graders sprinted into class. These students were creating their own alien solar systems and comparing them to the solar system we live in. As I’m focused on the nitty-gritty academic task of helping one student figure out how far a planet should be from its star, another student comes up to me with a clear question on her face.
I ask her, “What do you need?”
She tells me, “Well, I’m thinking of naming this planet Dumbledorus and making it bright blue. And this planet is going to have alien life on it, but I can’t figure out what it should be.”
As I flash back to Harry Potter movie nights with my community, I ask her to think about what animals are in the Potter stories and we begin a conversation about basilisks, which prompts her to excitedly decide that her planet will be swampy and named “Riddles.” In that moment, I realized how much I needed my middle school self to help my students tap into their passions. My teacher self still had the goals of our lesson in place: we were still working to evaluate whether my students could meet the state standard of explaining the characteristics of solar systems, but I was grateful that I hadn’t totally forgotten what it was like to be young and even more grateful that my student had challenged me to remember why I wanted to teach in the first place.
If you’re interested in doing ACE, it’s probably because you want to change students lives and to inspire them; you want to challenge them and love them and show them how they can be saints. That’s awesome! But as all ACE teachers learn, it’s harder to do that than anything you’ve ever tried before. The demands that teaching and the ACE program place on you can be quick to take those ideals off of your daily checklist as lesson planning, grading, professional development, and ACE assignments slowly take precedence. In the overwhelmed chaos of first-year teaching, the responsibilities thrown at you can force you to push aside the larger feelings of compassion and gratitude that made you want to teach in the first place.
But the true joy of teaching is in the moments that we can overcome our own obligations and failures enough to let our students and ourselves see just a little bit more magic in the world. To truly appreciate those moments requires patience, humility, determination and the willingness to keep our own childhood and our own experiences as students close to our hearts. But if you’re willing to take on the challenge of balancing your professional responsibilities with your desire to love your students, you just may find your classroom filled with scholars and saints.