It was Miranda’s* senior year of high school. She refused to rejoin the basketball team and ditched all of her old pink clothes for black jeans, heavy black eyeliner, and black band shirts. Her dark hair had streaks of bleach brown and hot pink, and her nails, long and pointed like claws, were always painted rave neon colors. Like many of her peers on the Rez, she lived with extended family. Like many of her peers on the Rez, she was still coping with her best friend’s suicide from the previous spring.

“Our people have spent centuries being killed,” one elder teacher told us during teacher training, “Now our children—they’re killing themselves.”

Two weeks after fighting every single class, I learned about Miranda’s background. Like many young and naive teachers, I was convinced that I and I alone was responsible for the attitudes of my students and the outcomes of my classroom. At the time, asking about a kid’s personal life felt invasive. I was so blind! As history teaches us, the most success comes from deep knowledge of context. And there are so many factors outside of the teacher’s control that affect the classroom.

One day, fed up with Miranda’s terrible attitude and annoyed by the selfish energy she drained away from my time with other students, I sent her into the hall for a talk. I never sent her to the office; doing so would prove that I had given up on her and had no control of my classroom culture. I deeply wanted to prove that I had what it took to be a fierce, no-nonsense teacher.**

The argument got heated. My poor students in the classroom probably were looking through the door window, unable to complete any of their work with so much drama.

Frustrated that Miranda had no idea how much I wanted to help her, I did the ‘whisper-yell’: “Look, I don’t give a shit about whether you like me or not. I don’t care! What I DO care about is improving your math skills. That’s it. You can choose to let me, or continue to waste a whole friggin year.”

She shut up. For once, she had no immediate comeback to fling in my face. Bewildered, I listened mutely as she agreed to let me help her.

The change was immediate. Class went as smoothly as a first-year teacher’s class could go; Miranda kept her shoulder to the wheel for the rest of the year. We talked about life, she told me about her experiences, and I tried to help her understand that she was A) probably 4-6 years behind grade level in math and that B) hard work could close that gap.

Like many of her peers on the Rez, Miranda did not graduate on time. To the extent of my knowledge, she never did. Let me also be honest about my failures as a first year teacher (this is a whole separate story): I was not prefect and I could of done so much more than I did, but I did love my students. I miss them all the time. But Miranda taught me two things that I kept with me as I continued to teach:

  1. Be consistent in your care. Every student’s attitude can change, but you must show them that you care. It may take quite a while for them to understand that, but there’s little you can do to control their feelings about a situation. Like any relationship, it takes time: you have to persist and be patient with your kids.

  2. Brutal honesty can be pretty powerful. It doesn’t matter if someone is 15 or 50: they appreciate others “Telling is like it is.” When you’re a teenager, so much of your experience is trying to understand the principles you and others have grown up with, and if they’re right for you. If you can point out the bullshit, you should.

  3. Recognize your strengths and focus on them. A teacher can only do (and be) so much. I used to have a pretty terrible hero complex, convinced I could change my kids’ lives completely. TFA kind of fosters this belief with many of their dramatic success stories. This hubris was chiseled down by the end of the year as I understood more about what it means to grow up on the Rez, and the misconceptions I had about my own teaching philosophy. I came to understand that bringing daily joy into the lives of my students was what I loved most about my job. When I left Shiprock, most of the way I approached teaching was focused on that, and about trying to understand what actually was best for my students, instead of projecting my own goals on them.

/* Name has been changed.
/** Turns out, I’m a bit more of the make-you-laugh with stupid puns and funny faces kind of teacher. You gotta do you, and nobody else.