It’s Teacher Appreciation Week — but this piece is something of an appreciation reversal.
Instead of students appreciating teachers, a teacher tells the story of how his math students at a Texas school helped him through the saddest part of his life, the 2015 death of his young son.
The piece is more than a personal story. It is a testament to the importance of relationships in schools — how teacher-student connections matter in ways that go beyond whether kids pass a math test. It is also a warning about strong relationships are hurt in schools that are not properly funded and where teachers have huge classes with insufficient resources.
This was written by Cacey L. Wells, 32, a former math teacher at the International School of the Americas in Texas. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Oklahoma in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum.
By Cacey L. Wells
This story is about how my students helped me get through the saddest time in my life and it illustrates the importance of caring relationships in classrooms. Unfortunately, the ability for these important connections to be established is in danger by underfunding of public schools.
In 2013, my wife and I found out we were expecting a boy. We became increasingly excited as his arrival drew near. Each day students would ask me how were doing and if we were ready for the new baby. They cared about me and my family, just as I cared for them.
In October 2013, our son Hudson was born but something did not seem right. After Hudson spent several days in neonatal intensive care, we were told that he had suffered a stroke in utero. His his brain had been significantly damaged and his prognosis was devastating.
All expectations I had of playing catch with my son, swinging him in my arms, or even seeing him open his eyes were shattered in a moment.
As the months passed, my family endured more than we ever thought we could. Our expectations changed as we came to to see the beauty of living with a child with special needs.
As I was learning to adjust my expectations for Hudson, there were some constants: Family who cared for us; friends at work and church who brought us meals, sat with us at our house, and routinely called to say they loved us. And there were my students, who never ceased to ask how Hudson was doing.
Each day at school, I would look forward to students such as Naysa, Graham, Lily, and Grayson asking me about Hudson. For me, it was a joy to share his life, achievements (however small they seemed to the outside world), and his prognosis. They cared for me and I was impacted deeply.
In December 2014, Hudson seemed to take a turn for the worse. Over winter break, we spent some of our final moments with him. We celebrated Christmas with our family, but his health then sharply declined. On January 2, 2015, Hudson passed away, leaving my wife and I grieving for months to come.
I took some time off work after Hudson’s memorial service. The day I returned to work became one of the most memorable days of my life. As I walked into my classroom, I saw a gigantic banner that read “You’ve got this, Mr. Wells!” with dozens of notes written by students.
I’ll never forget reading the encouraging words that students wrote me and the things they had to say. My students truly cared about me and helped me walk through the saddest time of my life.
The power of caring relationships does not come from standards, interesting content, or successes on state tests. Caring relationships are born out of a deep desire to understand another human being’s life experiences and perspectives.
In a time in education where there is a major focus on “measurables” such as standards, objectives, and data, we tend to objectify both our subjects and our students. We must fight against this.
Students are not inanimate objects. They are people — human beings with thoughts, emotions, and value.
As teachers in a number of states are walking out of classrooms to protest not just their own low pay but also underfunding in their schools, I encourage you to look at the long-term impacts that a pay raise and increased funding can have on our teachers, students, and schools. Classrooms are much more than places where students learn content knowledge. Students and teachers impact one another on a daily basis.
The more we can listen to teachers’ needs for funding, the more they can invest in students, help them learn what it means to care, and make a lasting difference. That’s what teachers ultimately sign up for when they enter their profession. They care.
They care about students’ academic success as well as their social and emotional needs. When schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid, and classrooms are overcrowded, the stresses placed on schools become too much to bear.
Caring relationships take time and effort to develop. When teachers are pressed for time and endure overcrowded classes, their students not only suffer academically, but socially and emotionally as well.
I worked in a state that compensated me well and my class sizes were generally small. Had this not been the case, my students and I may not have been able to have the positive relationship we had. I was able to care for my students and they cared about me during the most devastating time of my life. When students care, our schools and communities are better places to live.
Will you listen to what teachers are standing up for — and against? Will you support them to continue to care for your children so they can learn the power of caring for others?