The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teacher: The greatest gifts students have given me that can’t be purchased or wrapped

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)
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With the education debate focused so much on policy and standards, it is easy to forget what actually goes on in classrooms beyond test-taking. This post reminds us of the real stuff of teaching and learning. It was written by Jess Burnquist is a veteran high school teacher and writer who works in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Her writing has appeared in TIME.COM, The Frisky, xojane,, and she is a regular contributor to Life of the Law. You can see her work at

By Jess Burnquist

Before the New Year, my husband and I began to repaint various rooms in our house. During the removal of art from walls and the reshuffling of our belongings in preparation for painting, I was struck by how many of our framed drawings and knick-knacks were gifts from my current and former high school students. Our walls and shelves are filled with the thoughtfulness of teenagers.

For a moment, I considered taking pictures to upload into my professional portfolio alongside existing photos of sample student work and classroom activities. My administration and I could extend discussion during my yearly evaluation to include the number of gifts I’ve received in my teaching career which stretches back some 16 years now. I envisioned a quiet rebellion of sorts by adding a bold-lettered, surprise category to existing evaluation criteria. I might say during our meeting, “Don’t forget – when we’re done discussing data-based evidence, we still need to review Gifts from Students.

This daydream brought a tongue-in-cheek smile to my face. Upon further reflection though, such a category might really be a worthwhile form of the measurement of one’s effectiveness as a teacher.

The gifts I’m referring to can’t be purchased or wrapped. They are not mass produced. Often they are presented without students’ knowledge or intention. We recently finished a unit on “Animal Farm” in my sophomore classes. Our activities for this unit, in addition to the novel study, center on revolution and oppression in history and current times. Students are placed into “country” groups. Each group chooses a dictator. Flags and laws are created to enhance our studies of nationalism and eventually student-countries compete for points in a game based on strategies for obtaining power. As their “head dictator,” my job is to create a sense of uneasiness with unfair point distribution. This is done to provide an inkling of what it might be like to exist in an environment where leaders can alter rules and ignore fairness to satisfy personal whims. As Orwell wrote, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

This year, a large number of students from one of my honor’s sophomore classes staged a revolt. They approached my administration without my knowledge and explained the study/competition stating that in keeping with the themes and events in “Animal Farm,” they had the right to refuse to come to class. Permission was granted—but only for one hour of a two-hour block day. Not only did the students congregate in the courtyard as class began, they also made loudspeaker announcements urging the members of class  loyal to me to join the revolution. When their hour was up, they arrived back to class and were joyous — if not a bit righteous — in the success of their fulfilled plot.

We had an incredible learning moment when several leaders of the said revolt began to refuse to settle down and take a seat. I asked them about their original reasoning for plotting the revolt. One student answered, “We don’t like this point structure.” I responded by asking them what that had to do with where they sat, and light bulbs flickered on. They quickly recognized the parallels between having lost sight of the original goals for their revolt in exactly the same way as the animals in Orwell’s allegory had.

It felt like a holiday—namely because everyone in the classroom experienced a level of engagement that translated beyond an ordinary day. The majority of them worked together to plot their revolt while I was away from class chaperoning a field trip. In addition to their growing camaraderie, they clearly understood the content and extended their own learning. Such evidence of student bonding and the application of learning is a gift for any teacher to witness—and in this case I’m pretty sure it was deeply unintentional.

In my Creative Writing classes, it has become clear that about a quarter of the students in each section don’t enjoy writing. They mistook the class as an easy elective or took it because they had a scheduling conflict. I try not to take it personally when students groan about having to write a poem or complain about a short story they are assigned to read that I adore. There were times last quarter when I was tempted to break into wild song just to see if they were paying attention.

To be fair, Creative Writing is a senior-only course. My students have a long list of demands on their time, including  jobs, extra-curricular activities, family obligations and the pressure of figuring out what they will do when high school ends. Imagine my delight when one of the students who works 30-plus hours a week and who was unwillingly placed in my class took time on his free evening to send me an e-mail. He wrote: “I think you’ve made it clear how much you like words and their uses. I think you’d enjoy these three videos.”

My favorite was the video which broke down the five levels of swearing and explained how squiggles and numbers used to indicate a curse word in writing have a name—grawlexes! Receiving his email inspired me not to put off grading until morning. If he could make such an effort, then so could I.

The longer I teach, the more frequently gifts from current and former students arrive in the forms of an e-mail (such as the one with the videos), a surprise visit or a letter.

The first such letter has a place of honor in an album of keepsakes. The sender  was a student who caused me to lose sleep during my first year of teaching. He was brilliant, defiant and seemingly angry at anyone over the age of 16. Each night after I put my children to bed, I read educational manuals and scanned teaching websites for advice. I was desperate to curb his outbursts and increase his performance. Most of the suggestions I read felt false or in some way beneath his intelligence.

I decided the best I could do was to never lower my expectations, nor lose my cool. When I felt like booting him from class, I would instead find one thing that I appreciated about him and let him know it. This tactic seemed to throw him off-balance. One time I complimented him on his hair because that was all I could stand.

He graduated a year later and I never expected to hear from him again. I received a letter from him during his first year of college. It began with the line, “I’m writing to thank you.” I spit out my coffee. By letter’s end, I was sobbing. The impact of his thank-you note has reverberated throughout my career. He is who I recall when I have a student exhibiting some or all of his antics—and his thank-you note is what helps me take the next step on a rough day.

Very rarely do I encounter students who are secure in both their learning and their sense of selves. This fact adds so much weight to kind gestures students make.

I happen to love elephants. This year, I received a gorgeous painting of an elephant surrounded by sunflowers. I learned that the student who painted it did so to attempt to “bribe me” during our Animal Farm competition. Such knowledge didn’t take away from the fact that this very reserved girl spent over a month creating a piece of art bursting with warmth and beauty. In the same class, a group of five students spent an entire weekend making a mock documentary about elephants—complete with a soundtrack and narration that would put National Geographic to shame. One of the students dressed up as an elephant and five minutes and pristine satire ensued. The effort by such students is invigorating and not to be overlooked.

I think the greatest gift I’ve been honored to receive throughout my years as a high school teacher is the knowledge that teenagers are incredibly generous. Each year they exceed my high expectations in a variety of ways and I am always astonished by their capacity to give and grow.

Each year, I am reminded how lucky I am to be a teacher in spite of any given political landscape or regular misunderstandings of my profession. I am grateful because, believe it or not, adolescents are capable of demonstrating extreme generosity to one another while also simply being so much fun. Daily, I receive the gift of joy from my students—especially when they start revolutions.