This is Why I Teach: Inspiring Jake

Did you get a chance to read my Teaching is a Grind post?  In it, I shared the ugly truth that a career in education ain’t all sunshine and candycorn.

The bit clearly resonated with readers, racking up more comments — both here and on the Center for Teaching Quality site — than any post I’ve written in a long, long time.  Most commenters were grateful that I was willing to express feelings that most educators rarely share in public forums.

No commenter has left me thinking more than Sylvia Umstead, who wrote:

You seem so unhappy.  Why didn’t you leave years ago?  What’s keeping you in this profession?

My initial reaction to Sylvia’s post was heartbreaking.  “Who knows?!” I thought.  Working in a state that is systematically gutting public education one bad policy at a time REALLY DOES make it difficult to be happy on a day-to-day basis — and as a guy who has worked to build a consulting career beyond the classroom, leaving honestly would be easier than staying.

The answer to Sylvia’s question, though, rolled through my classroom door at 7:45 AM the next morning in the form of a boy that I’ll call Jake.  

Jake comes from a tough neighborhood where simply making ends meet often takes priority over success in school for most parents and students.  At the beginning of the school year, he brought a fat attitude and a thousand behavior problems to every class period.  He was defiant.  He was disrespectful to everyone.  He slept through classes, mouthed off to substitute teachers, and argued with anyone willing to listen.


What he didn’t realize, though, is that he’d been assigned to a team with three caring male teachers who weren’t going to let him off the hook that easily.  Together, we tag-teamed Jake — calling him out when he was inappropriate, coaching him up in the hallway when he needed some redirection, and celebrating every small success that he had while in our rooms.

We bought him supplies when he needed them.  We showed up at the community center near his home for awards ceremonies where he was being recognized.  We turned him into a mentor for another boy living in his neighborhood who needed some help.  We joked with him and made him laugh and gave him hugs when he needed them.

I think we caught him by surprise — and when we finally convinced him that we genuinely cared about him, he became a different kid. 

He pays attention and participates in every class now.  His homework is always finished.  He comes to school smiling — including for all SIX of the Saturday makeup days that we had this year due to school cancellations.  He reaches out to us every morning — coming to find us just to touch base.  Sometimes he asks us for help with homework.  Sometimes he wants to make playful bets with us on upcoming sporting events.  Sometimes he just sits next to us, saying nothing but listening to everything.  It’s almost like he wants to be SURE that we are still there for him and happy to see him.

Jake is why I remain in the classroom. 

He’s a physical reminder that despite the crap coming out of our state’s legislature, teaching remains one of the few professions where you can make a real difference in someone else’s life.  Had we written him off as a kid who was beyond help — something society is all-too-ready to do for kids like Jake AND something that would have been REALLY easy if you’d seen him in the first few weeks of the school year — who knows what he would have become.

Instead, by investing in him — by constantly reminding him that we care about who he is and have high hopes for who he can be — we’ve made school a safe place and success as a learner something that Jake can embrace and believe in.  That investment will pay off for him.  It might even change his life’s trajectory and give him a better chance at breaking out of the cycle of poverty that brings so many of today’s students down.

Jake is a huge win.  He’s the reason that I keep on grinding.

Jake is why I teach.


*Name changed to protect Jake’s identity.  


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  They Don’t Judge Me By a Test

This is Why I Teach:  They Are Learning From Me

This is Why I Teach:  They Still Dream


10 thoughts on “This is Why I Teach: Inspiring Jake

  1. Megan K

    I want to make sure this post gets more comments than the negative one.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. (And have you every considered teaching in an international school? It’s totally different!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Megan,

      Thanks for the kind words — and I didn’t totally mind the negative comment. It pushed my thinking, that’s for sure. Made me feel uncomfortable — and learning only starts when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

      As far as international schools go, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to give them a whirl. Matter of time until I start looking for a different setting. Could be something I pursue sooner rather than later!

      Thanks for reading,

  2. scottgaglione

    Bill, this was such an inspiring post to read. This is a story of the true value of teachers. It probably won’t show up on any data aggregation, but the impact that you guys have made on this young man is beyond any data point. We all have difficult, challenging students in our classes each year, and you are right, it would be easy to just pay them no mind and move them along to the next teacher.

    But you didn’t, instead you connected with him and showed him that he matters. As a result, he began to care about himself, and that feat in itself is far greater than any knowledge you could have imparted to him. His life’s trajectory has exponentially been increased.

    Thank you for sharing, and more importantly, thank you for taking all of the time and patience to truly connect and make a difference in this student’s life.

    Finally, I am glad that you are still teaching, as we need more models of what it means to be a teacher for our upcoming teachers!

  3. jenmarten

    Ah, I have a couple of Jake’s every year. 🙂 But my biggest reason is a little rough and tumble 3rd grade girl (my first year teaching in 1988-89) who tugged on my heart strings. I had the privilege of teaching her again as a 5th grader, and while both years were challenging, I saw her grow and change. 26 years later, and more than 1000 miles away, I still hear from her on a regular basis, and I have met her husband and three beautiful children. So, when I have that new challenging student each year, I think of her and all she has become, and I know part of it is because I didn’t give up on her. It keeps me going.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Darcy, Jen, Scott and Philip,

      First, that’s for the kind words and comments.

      Second, whaddya’ think about starting a #findyourjake campaign?! It’s a Chris Wejr idea. If we all took responsibility for reaching out to one kid — to really mattering to a struggling student in our lives — we’d make a serious difference. More importantly, if we encouraged OTHERS to take responsibility for one kid, we’d make an even bigger difference.

      Should I write about it?



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  5. aolsonssc

    You continue to inspire me with your commitment and dedication to being an excellent educator. The Jakes of this world need you. Great post.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Allyson,

      Thanks a ton for the kind words. There’s no doubt that there are days where I really dig my work. I think it’s the tangible-ness of seeing the impact that I make that keeps me in the classroom.

      Don’t underestimate how much I admire you, though, Pal. You are one of the most competent leaders that I’ve worked with! I’d follow you most anywhere because I believe in what you know and can do. That’s the hallmark of a great leader.

      Hope to see that coffee shop post, by the way!



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