The Drive to Teach & Lead

Maple Kirby is an 8th grade English teacher and Grade Team Lead in Kansas City, MO.  She is a Leading Educators fellow and a TeachStrong Advocate.

When I drive, I think about my own mortality. Although I’m not typically a nervous person, I still realize how easy it would be to get hurt or killed while in my car. When I first had those thoughts, I wondered what the impact would be if I died right then. I got this strange pleasure knowing that I was a good enough person that my family and my friends would be heartbroken.

My life changed when I became a teacher.

I’ve heard a lot of other new teachers say that when they get in the car every morning on their way to school, they have this overwhelming thought:  "Almost every part of me wants to drive away from school and never go back."

When I used to drive as a teacher and asked myself what the impact would be if I died right then, for a really long time the answer to that question was, "It would be easier than going to school."

Teaching is incredibly hard. We are asked to care for children as well as parents do; to put in the same hours that new associates at Wall Street banks do; to master as many new skills as medical residents do. 

But unlike parents, we are responsible for up to 33 children at one time (sometimes many more depending on the school!) Unlike Wall Street associates, we are compensated inadequately for our time. Unlike medical residents, we are expected to get results with minimal training before and throughout our careers.

After driving to my first day at one of Kansas City’s public schools, my students told me that I would not be a teacher very long, that I would be quitting soon.  In their school, where teachers work tirelessly and are rarely respected, they see their teachers leave all the time – evidence that people don't care about them.

One of the students who told me this was named Kaleb. He told me I was “going to Hell” during the first months of school when I struggled to control my classroom, like many beginning teachers. Kaleb slogged through the original Romeo and Juliet instead of fully enjoying it because I did not have support with my English curriculum. Kaleb was devastatingly behind in reading and writing as he had far too many teachers who had as little training as me, or who simply left in the middle of the year.  It was a rough year for Kaleb and me.

During my second year of teaching, I frequently passed Kaleb on my morning commute because he walked the 40 minutes to school every day. One frigid morning, I offered him a ride, and he told me that last year, as he had struggled, I was there and worked hard to help him every day.  And because of it, he decided that when he grows up, he wants to be a teacher.

My fourth year of teaching, I taught a group of 25 Kalebs, who traveled as a cohort to different teachers for each subject.  The cohort, named after Bucknell College, spent more time each class period trying to get their teammates off task than learning.  Teaching them felt like wrangling a 600 pound bull for 100 minutes a day.  That feeling was shared among all of Bucknell’s teachers. When Bucknell went to fitness, they bullied their fellow students. When they went to science, they threw pencils at each other from across the room. When they went to math, the teacher ended up in tears.  Bucknell’s grades and scores began to steadily decline. 

This was the year that I began working with Leading Educators.  I learned to build an uplifting culture among my team of eight, and with them, go on to analyze the culture in Bucknell and among all of our students.  Each week, I led professional development on invaluable skills for teachers and on supports we could offer our kids.  Each week, I collaborated with a team who shared the same vision and the same tools to getting there.  And as a team, we worked for a better future for Bucknell.

Seven months into the year, a visitor in our school walked into my class with Bucknell unannounced.  When the guest left, she said, “I am so impressed and inspired by your students because of how hardworking and passionate they are.” On our third quarter school-wide formative assessment, Bucknell scored on par with their peers for the first time all year.

When teachers are surrounded by a team that has each other’s backs and fights, tooth and nail, for the same vision for their kids, those teachers change a whole generation.  And it’s those kids who will then go on to change the world.

Teachers do not teach because they care about themselves. They teach because they care about the nation’s children. And teachers need more support to be able to do this effectively and reach every child.  Campaigns that unite education organizations like Leading Educators to others in order to elevate the teaching profession—like TeachStrong—are critical to keeping great teachers in the classroom.  These organizations help teachers become better teachers and want to stay in the classroom, and, in this way, they help infinitely more kids than just Kaleb. TeachStrong is working to provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed through improved planning, collaboration, and development. I know that such resources and support would have helped me as a beginning teacher, as I struggled to reach kids like Kaleb.

It has taken many years of teaching to change my thoughts about my own life and mortality on my morning drive to school. Now, on my way to school, I realize that if something happened to me, my students wouldn’t have a teacher. And this is more important than my own life. It keeps me driving toward school every morning.