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How to love your job: remember the good times
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Noelia could always make a teacher’s day, so I was glad to do the same for her. A 17-year-old who moved to the country just recently, she told me she felt badly about her command of English.

“Noelia, you speak and write English very well,” I told her truthfully.

“Do you really think so?” she asked joyfully, smiling like sunshine after rain.

Summer has arrived, and teachers may be even happier than their students. There’s nothing easy about this business, so I don’t fault my colleagues for welcoming a well-earned break. But lest we forget what we love about teaching, it’s worth reflecting on the high points of the year we’ve just completed.

In my 13 years teaching at high school, there have always been students who stand out in terms of achievement. This year I had quite a few who wanted to learn and showed enthusiasm for our lessons. Several of my sophomores qualified for our Advanced Placement US History course and many seniors earned entrance to four-year universities. Kids with a good work ethic and a positive attitude make teaching seem easy.

But some struggle with issues I couldn’t fathom at their age. This year, I had a student dealing with pregnancy, another who needed a kidney transplant, a boy whose younger brother is fighting cancer and a girl whose sister died. Whenever I’m able to help these kids learn and succeed despite their great personal challenges, it feels like a victory.

I teach a large number of students learning English as a second language, including some who started just recently. This year four Vietnamese arrived speaking no English at all; I can hardly imagine a more difficult transition. Yet these students tend to be the hardest workers and I’m always proud when they succeed. This year I started learning Spanish and the Chicano kids loved becoming my “teachers” and finding mistakes in my homework.

About 30 kids took my journalism class, and most became published writers for the first time. Others gained skills as editors, page designers and business managers. We published 13 issues, won several awards and launched a web site at

These memories from my classroom barely scratch the surface of all the positive events from this school year. The Trojans won league titles and our boys varsity basketball team captured its first-ever section championship, finishing two wins shy of a state crown. As always, our artists, actors and musicians amazed us with their talents. Two dozen students visited Washington D.C. through the Close Up program, met Senator Barbara Boxer and got a smile and wave from President Obama at the White House.

Others formed a club to oppose education budget cuts. An ambitious boy attempted 11 Advanced Placement tests. A compassionate girl single-handedly organized a “Barefoot Mile” fundraiser to combat poverty. Another started a “free hugs” campaign just to brighten the days.

Not one of these achievements shows up on our Academic Performance Index, the state’s mathematical report card for public schools. Yet I’d wager they’ll hold meaning to the students long after they’ve forgotten their STAR tests scores.

Teachers also would be wise to retain these memories even as we purge the aggravations of cell phone squabbles, discipline referrals and the like from our consciousness in the summer months. If we do, we’ll walk back into classrooms with bigger smiles come September.


— Matt Johanson teaches at Castro Valley High School and authored the new book, “Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground,” described at