Math = Love: The Power Of A Note

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Power Of A Note

In elementary school and middle school, my teachers loved to have us write poems about ourselves.  They would give us templates, and we would have to fill in the templates with adjectives to describe ourselves.  I hated these assignments because I could never come up with adjectives to describe myself on my own.  I usually ended up enlisting the help of my mom and sister to write these poems.  Usually, these poems ended up focusing on the fact that I was shy, quiet, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, honest, etc.  There were a lot of words I never even considered.  A lot of times, I focused more on what I wasn't than what I was.  I dreamed of being more outgoing.  I dreamed of having more of an influence.  But, nobody would have ever known that from my actions.  I never spoke up.  I never wanted to be the center of attention.  I hated it when people said I was "smart."  In fact, I would argue with them.  "I'm not smart.  I just work hard.  Anybody could achieve what I have done if they worked hard."  My goal was to blend in, to fit in.

There are words I never would have chosen for myself.  Powerful is one that comes to mind.  Confident is another.

In our teacher's lounge/workroom, there is a poster that I see every time I go to make a copy.  It shouts: "Somebody Needs You!"  And, it features a quote from Larry Bell: "On your worst day on the job, you are still some child's best hope."

Somebody Needs You! Poster

I have the power to change a student's life.  Let me rephrase that.  I have the power to change a student's day, to make it better or worse.  And, the sum of those days forms a students' life.  So, my every decision changes lives.  I teach in a small, rural school district, but, with the exception of gangs, we face most of the same obstacles faced by inner-city schools.  Drugs.  Lack of parental involvement.  Students living with and being raised by people who aren't even related to them.  Most of their parents didn't go to college.  Many didn't even graduate from high school.  Many students have one or both of their parents incarcerated.  I sit in meetings, and I hear the heartbreaking stories of the things they have had to go through.  Abuse.  Abandonment.  Things I could never imagine going through.

And, it hurts.  I want to be able to change things for them.  But, I can't erase their pasts.  And, I can't change the situations they find themselves in currently.  I get overwhelmed by all that I can't do.  Sometimes I forget that there are things I can do.  They are small things.  But, they are powerful things.

Lately, I've been finding myself writing a lot of notes.  It started after my birthday.  I wrote a short thank you note to all of the students who brought me cake or cupcakes or a card.  These thank you notes were meant to be a private thing, a small token of my gratitude.  But, they were a bigger thing to my students than I realized.  To me, it was just a note.  To my students, it was tangible proof of their worth and value.  I mentioned something to our special ed teacher one day about one of her students surprising me with a gift.  She replied, "I know.  She was so proud of that thank you note you wrote her.  She had to show it to me."

Then, Christmas came.  Christmas gifts from students meant more thank you notes.  After all, my mom raised me to send a thank you note after receiving any gift.  I passed out thank you notes.  And, I had students thanking me for their thank you notes.  "Your note almost made me cry.  I'm going to keep it forever."  When I heard this, I felt bad.  I couldn't have told you what I had written in the note.  To me, it was just a note; I was fulfilling a societal expectation.  To them, it was so much more.

While my students were taking semester tests, I set out to write some Christmas cards.  One student stayed after school to work on bringing his grade up to passing.  He saw my pile of Christmas cards that I had written to various family members, friends from college, and people from church.  Unashamedly, he asked me where his Christmas card was.  I tried not to act shocked.  "Would you like me to write you a Christmas card?"  He replied with a simple, "Yes."  Then, he stood at my desk and waited while I removed a card from the box and wrote a short note.  I wrote the note, stuffed the card in the envelope, and scrawled his name on the outside.  I handed it to him, and he walked away, satisfied.

A day or two later, I was once again talking to the special ed teacher.  We were going through the list of IEP students in my classes and their current grades.  When the conversation turned to the student who had been working in my room after school, the teacher told me how nice it had been of me to write him a card.  "He's been carrying that card around in his pocket all day and showing it to everybody!  He's so proud of it!"  I filled her in on just how he came to have a Christmas card from me in his possession.

To me, if I had to ask somebody to write me a card, it would diminish the value of it.  But, I forget that I grew up in a different world than most of my students.  I grew up with two parents who are still married to each other to this day.  I grew up, surrounded by people who told me how much I mattered to them.  I never doubted that I was loved and would be cared for.  I never wondered where my next meal would come from or who would pick me up from school that day.  I had a life of constancy.  I had a life of stability.  I had a support system that I felt like I could truly depend on.  These are luxuries that many of my students lack.  I didn't need a piece of paper to remind me that I was valued.  But, what if my life didn't look the way it did?  I can imagine that having something tangible to hold onto would be a most meaningful thing.

Notecards from Target

Most recently, Valentine's Day brought the opportunity to write more thank you notes.  I wrote cards to the three students who got me candy.  But, I didn't stop there this time.  I wrote a note to a student who often comes in during her free period to help straighten up my classroom.  I wrote a note of thanks to a student who stepped up and led the class when a fluke left me in a meeting and my class without a sub.

Thank You Stamp

These notes cost me little to write.  I buy packs of 8-10 cards for a dollar at Target or Dollar Tree.  I picked up a cute "Thank You" stamp this summer from the Dollar Spot at Target.  But, by now, I know just how much these notes mean to my students.  As I was passing out some of these most recent thank you notes, one of my students questioned me: "Where's my note?  Why don't I have a note in the pile?  You should write me a note!"  I wasn't prepared for this question/demand.  This student is an especially sweet one.  She often comes in my room before school or at lunch to just talk.  She is always leaving me sweet notes on the board, thanking me for being her teacher.  Why shouldn't I write her a thank you note?

Note From A Student

So, I sat down and penned her a note.  I also penned a note to the other girl who was sitting in my room at the time.  She often arrives early and comes to hang out in my room.  We talk about movies and the best youtube videos.  She tells me about getting her nails or hair done.  It's nothing deep, but I love that she feels like I am someone she can talk to.  The bell rang to start the day before I could give either student their note.  I gave one student her note when she came into my room for lunch.  She excitedly read it and thanked me for her thank you note.  I didn't get a chance to give my note to the student who had requested one until that afternoon when I had her in class.  After reading her note, she came up behind me, smiled, and said "Thanks!  I love you, too, Ms. Hagan!"    

Why have I focused so long on the things I can't change for my students instead of things I can do?  Maybe it's the math teacher inside of me.  I see the problems they face.  I see what little I can do.  The inequality is apparent.  The problems my students face > What little I can do.  That's no excuse, though.  If I can do something, no matter how little, I need to be doing it.  I need to look at the inequality like this: The problems my students face > What little I can do > Zero/Nothing.  A positive difference is exactly that.  It's positive.  It's greater than zero.

As this school year starts to wind to a close, I want to make sure every student gets at least one handwritten note from me.  Will some throw them away without a second thought?  Certainly.  Will some thank me profusely?  Yes.  And, I'll probably never get quite used to being thanked for a thank you note.  I'll never know the true impact of these notes.  But, I'm not going to let that stop me.  These students deserve this much from me.  They deserve to be reminded that someone cares.  They deserve something tangible that communicates the fact that they matter.

I'm inspired by Rebecka Peterson's recent post on One Good Thing.  Every Friday, students are allowed to write her letters about anything they wish.  On Mondays, she presents them with a letter in response.  How simple and yet amazing is this idea?  How many students do I have who would write something in a letter that they would never be brave enough to ask me in person?  So much of my time is spent managing the students who are loud, the students who misbehave.  I end up missing forming connections with the students who are quiet, who always do their work, who never ask questions.  They slip through the cracks, and this is not okay.

I realize this school year is almost over, but I'm going to give this a try.  Next year, I want a mailbox to set by my desk.  I want a physical reminder to students that they can talk to me about anything.  If they're too scared or shy to talk to me about it in person, they can write me a letter.  And, I'll write them back.  I love opening my mailbox to find a letter or a card.  I think all of us do.  

If I was to write a poem about myself now-a-days, it would probably differ vastly from the ones I wrote in school.  Adjectives that come to mind?  Teacher.  Life-impacter.  World-changer.  Difference-maker.  Inspiring.  Powerful.

I have no doubt.  I am in the correct profession.  This profession has empowered me to become the person I always knew I was meant to be.  From here on out, I'm going to set out to not only changes the adjectives that come to mind when I think of myself, but I'm going to change the adjectives that come to my students' minds when they think of themselves, too.


  1. Nancy in IndianaMarch 3, 2014 at 6:27 AM

    Wow, that's powerful stuff!

  2. Sarah,
    What a wonderful post! It brought a tear to my eye. There is a book I read recently titled, "Just a minute, in the heart of a chold, one moment can last forever." The author is Wess Stafford, the president of Compassion International. It is a short easy read but profound. The stories tell of how taking just a minute a day can make a huge impact on a child. I have to get back to this. You have brought this to the head of my to do list. Thank you.

    1. I'm going to have to look into this book! Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Sarah, what a great post! Thank you for sharing and reminding us of the power we have as a teacher for each of our kids. :)