The Teacher’s High – Unicorns or Easter Eggs?

Most teachers know the feeling – that elusive mixture of pride, elation, joy, and surprise – when a student you’ve been working with for quite a while finally has the breakthrough. The light bulb goes on, the student has that look of “I’m doing it!” and all feels right with the world. It’s the Teacher’s High, and let’s face it – it’s probably one of the reasons most teachers become teachers in the first place. It sure was for me. That first time I saw a student finally put it together after all the teaching, support, tears, frustration, and try, try again . . . wow! It’s the best feeling in the world to know you had some small part in helping someone else understand and succeed at something they never thought possible.  There’s just no feeling quite like it. And the sad truth is . . . it’s a unicorn.

You glimpse it infrequently, but it’s enough to keep you hooked on finding it again. It inspires and drives you, and just when you’re certain it was a fluke – there it pops up again. It shows up just when you’re pretty sure you’re doing everything wrong as a teacher (or coach) and maybe you should do the world a favor and go work at Quick Trip when suddenly it shows up, like the sun breaking through clouds, and you think – well, maybe I’m doing something right.

However, once I left the classroom, those unicorns got even harder to find. As an Instructional Coach, I never worked with students long enough or directly enough to see those breakthroughs. However, that experience transferred and morphed into seeing that same excitement on the faces of the teachers I coached, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. Now as an administrator, I’ve pretty much accepted that the unicorns have retreated into the mist. But then something happened last week that turned everything on its head for me.

It had been an over-the-top day, and not in a good way. Too many behaviors, too much drama, WAY too many steps – I’d literally been running since I got to work. My head hurt so badly I was pretty sure my eyeball was going to throb right out onto the desk. With my head in my hands, I was pretty sure I was losing the battle that day. I’d been sitting for maybe a minute when one of our secretaries came to my door to say they needed me at the gym. Sighing, I grabbed my walkie-talkie and headed out.

As I came up on the gym doors, I saw it was one of my kindergarten friends sitting outside the door, crying. He’s done this all year, but recently he’s gotten so much better at getting it together. I wonder what set him off today. I squat down and ask him what’s up. He tells me in his unique gibberish that he can’t do the game today. “Ok,” I say. “Let’s go for a walk.” I hold my hand out to him and he grabs it, smiling. Wow, I think. That’s progress.

We walk for the hundredth time around the main floor, my friend “talking” to me all the way, and eventually we end up in the Music room. The Music teacher is working on the Field Day rotation schedule, and we chat for a minute about some details. Meanwhile, my friend is looking up at the wall where an alphabet is posted on the wall. I glance at him and notice he’s saying something. I get closer to him and suddenly freeze, totally shocked. He’s saying the alphabet!! He’s SAYING the ALPHABET!! OMG! He barely speaks, and when he does it’s nearly impossible to understand him because it’s a childish gibberish with a few recognizable words thrown in. I’m so excited I do a little happy shriek – smiling so big I’m sure I look like a nut – and give him the biggest hug ever. He hugs me back and looks surprised that I’m so happy, but he looks pretty darn proud and happy, too.

And there it was. The unicorn that I wasn’t even really looking for just showed up in the empty Music room. I can’t begin to describe how incredibly euphoric I felt at that moment. We’ve all worked so hard and the road has been so long and rough with this student – it truly felt like a miracle. And that it showed up on the day when I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything right for months – well, that validated all the daily work all of us have done to get to that moment. I suddenly realized how much I’d missed those moments, and in that one instance I felt renewed and ready to take on the world again.

But as we walked back to class, I realized that there was an easter egg in there too (an easter egg is a gamer term for hidden bonuses). The fact that my friend and I had built a relationship over this school year to the point that he would willingly come with me – that was pretty amazing considering he spent the first few months crying in my office for hours, yelling at me. That he holds my hand and tries to talk to me – that’s pretty terrific too. And that he got himself together enough after that to go back to class smiling – wow. So many huge accomplishments wrapped up in small moments – easter eggs – that almost got overlooked because they were so ordinary; and yet, they weren’t. Those small miracles were every bit as potent a high as those unicorn moments I’d had in the classroom. It got me thinking – how many have I missed over the years? Maybe I should be looking for more easter eggs, and less unicorns.

So as we celebrate teachers this week, I celebrate all of us who work with students – large and small, young and old – and get to share those unicorn moments of joy and accomplishment with them and with each other.   Those moments of growth, pride celebration are what teachers live for and they give us that Teacher’s High we can’t get doing anything else. I also celebrate and congratulate all of you who also recognize those easter eggs in your day and get just as jazzed about the little triumphs as you do about the epic ones.

When people ask us teachers “What’s your superpower?” we proudly say, “I TEACH!”

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

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