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The Worst Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

“Do you really think anything you do has any merit?”

My hands stilled over my keyboard. On my computer screen, a notification blipped. My Google slide presentation about nouns had automatically been saved into my drive.

Merit? Did I really think anything I was doing actually had any merit?

The question bounced off the soft, numb corners of my mind. I had been immersed in creating a lesson on nouns, on explaining the difference between a concrete and an abstract noun. I had just uncovered the ability to create voice recordings that would automatically play when my students clicked on the slide.

Merit? Was creating a slide presentation about nouns, about how they function in different ways in sentences have merit? Was teaching students ranging in age from middle to high school about nouns have any merit?

Sure, they should have learned about nouns when they were in elementary school. Sure, the lesson seemed awfully simplistic. But I’ve been in a classroom full of gifted-and-talented students…and they didn’t know what a noun was. So when they were writing in fragments and run-ons and I told them to identify their subjects….they thought I was asking them to tell me they were in English class. And that they had a math class or a history class next.

Photo by Max Fischer on

Not the topic of the sentence and that which is completing the verb.

Merit? Did I really think anything I was doing had any merit?

Yes. I really was asked this question. By someone I trusted and valued. By someone I still care about…and, yes, the tone shifting “comma-but” lingers at the end of this sentence.

Because, my teaching career has shifted from teaching the upper level, critical thinkers to teaching students identified as having special education needs. These students are capable of critical thinking, but it might take them a little longer to get there. These are students with different processing needs, students who need to be taught in different ways. These are the students who find the cliche’ cracks and slip through them. These are the students who don’t fit into the boxes that need to be thought outside of.

It’s easy to look down on those who are not the “brightest” and the “best.” These students have never necessarily been labelled as “the cream of the crop.” A tangential question that was eventually asked me by the same well-meaning individual was “Do you think they care?”

Do I really think that my students care what a noun is?

No. Duh. Very few people care about what a noun is. That’s why my job isn’t exactly high in demand. I don’t know a lot of people out there who are like, “Oh! I really want to teach ninth grade collaborative English!” Now, when I taught AP English Literature or dual enrollment, I had friggin’ shoe prints on my head with how many people were trying to use me as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter things (I’m having fun with my cliches today). Many teachers wanted to step into my shoes and take on my classes when I had the students who won awards or were the valedictorians and salutatorians. Got it. It’s fun and nifty to teach the students who enjoy learning or want to do well because they see how education might deliver them to a greater point in life.

But my greatest success stories aren’t the kids who went to Harvard (yup, I’ve had a couple go there) or who are doctors (yup…got those students too). It was the student who arrived in my class ten minutes late, and, walking through the room, greeted me with “What’s up dawg?” Over the course of the year, he went from looking to cause trouble to finding thematic content. He lived in poverty and depended on the school’s free lunches to give him at least one meal a day. Now, he donates food to the same free lunch program.

Or how about my student who was selectively mute? By the end of the year, he was talking (not a lot…but he was greeting the girls) and was my volunteer read-alouder.

Or the student who came to me with her arms looking like they’d been put through a blender because of her pain and she needed someone to see her pain? Or the student who bought a one-way ticket to another country because her home life was so terrible that she literally needed an escape?

Merit? Yes. What I do. What anyone does has merit.

Merit is not always going to be lauded by recognizable award systems. I don’t have tons of awards to my name. I was honored to receive “Teacher of the Year” for my school once. It didn’t go any further. And that’s about it. I’ve been nominated for the same award twice. And lost both times. Actually, I didn’t even get through the vetting process.

I don’t have ribbons or plaques or certificates. I have my one, humble, star-shaped trophy that sits in my office. It’s kind of dusty. Teaching virtually due to Covid means not having a lot of time for housework.

But I have the confidence in my soul that what I do has merit. That teaching students who are seen as unteachable has merit. That reaching out and helping people during the worst times of their lives has merit. Sure, they probably don’t know that a noun is an idea (they can always rattle off the person, place, or thing part). But then, who really cares other than a bunch of English teachers and a handful of writers and editors?

I have been teaching for twenty-six years, and I never really questioned whether or not what I was doing had any merit until last June. And then I stared at my nouns presentation and understood that it was remarkable simplistic and a bit elementary.

And then I told the person on the other end of the phone that, “Yes.” The person scoffed. Laughed. And my back straightened a little more and I raised my head a little higher and repeated myself through the laughter that, “yes, I really do think that what I do has merit.”

If helping my students doesn’t have merit, then what does?

If lifting up those who feel grieved doesn’t have merit, then what does?

If teaching students about the world and the commonalities of the human race doesn’t have merit, then what does?

By the way, I received an email this week from one of my students. Now, in full disclosure, she’s in my English 9 honors virtual class. But she thanked me for helping her learn grammar. Her science teacher had apparently complimented her on her writing and grammar skills.

Yup. I guess teaching students about nouns has a little merit after all.

2 thoughts on “The Worst Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

  1. OH absolutely! great article. Every teacher….. every life that encourages and clarifies correct expression of language ALL matter!
    The WHOLE realm of expression needs to be patiently taught to every person. Many indeed need reminding. Today’s world of hurry and texting can destroy the ability to write or speak a simple sentence unless teachers of quality still TEACH. Yes! you matter!

    Liked by 2 people

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