I am a middle school teacher, and I am a wealthy man.

The normal response to the discovery that I teach middle school is somewhere on a continuum of “you must be crazy” to “you must be a saint.”

The “crazy” end of that spectrum is the more frequent response. I don’t get paid a great deal of money, so I’m not rich in the sense of financial wealth. I’m rich because the experience of teaching has fundamentally changed me as a person.

In my pre-teaching years, I viewed wealth as attaining possessions and being able to afford anything I wanted. I was struck by the fantasies of exotic world travel and playing the finest golf courses in the world. I was easily drawn into the idea that my happiness would be tied to my financial success. Money would buy me freedom from demands and stress! As an outcome of a midlife crisis, however, I decided to be become a teacher.

Ironically, the experience of teaching is one of constant demands and stress.

So what teaching has taught me is that a meaningful, joyful life for me is not the freedom to do as I please; rather, it’s the privilege to experience relationships with my students in such a formative time in their lives. They (sometimes desperately) want someone to care deeply about their success and share in their journey toward an identity and a healthy sense of self. I consider myself incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to walk with students in their quest to know that their life is significant and does matter.

There are many days during a school year when I feel anything but wealthy and prosperous. But without fail, I end every school year with moments that remind me of the privileged life I live. This year, one of those moments happened during graduation.

As one particular senior was handed her diploma, my mind flashed back to her experience in middle school. At that time, her self-confidence, self-worth and self-esteem were at rock bottom. She didn’t feel like she was of any value to anyone, and she was going to prove that unworthiness to all of us who tried to teach her. She was difficult to teach because she wouldn’t try. She armored herself with excuses of laziness and stupidity. In middle school, she wasn’t a good student by any measure.

We could have accepted her excuses, dismissed her as unlikely to succeed and allowed her to fulfill her sense of unworthiness. But we didn’t. We saw in her a potential and possibility that she had no idea even existed. Convincing her would require chipping away at her misguided sense of self and help her to begin to discover the person that really resided beneath that armor of worthlessness.

We didn’t see much progress in her middle-school years. However, we were planting the seeds of her revival despite her strong will to deny the belief we had in her.

When she walked across the graduation stage in June, she did so with a self-confident smile and an obvious sense of accomplishment. My eyes moistened as I had one of those moments flush with deeply felt emotion. It was then that I again realized how enriching the teaching experience is for me.

Her story is one of many I treasure. The stories of my students are my wealth. Middle school is a very formative time. My work is much more than delivering content. The transition from adolescence to adulthood is on a fast track. Kids really start to establish who they will become. This includes beliefs, values and habits, all of which will forge their journey through life. Every one of them needs a dependable adult whom they can trust. I try hard to be that adult.

I am now at a crossroads in my life. I could choose to retire. I could look forward to days with far fewer stresses and demands than mentoring kids through adolescence. I could exchange the regimen of a bell schedule to life more on my own terms.

Yet I’m having a terrible time with this decision. At hand is the luxury of time and freedom to do as I please. But what will I be giving up? My fear is that I will be giving up my wealth of joy and sense of worth. I had always thought the choice to retire would be easy. I was profoundly wrong. I don’t think I’m ready to go out to pasture yet.

Donn Lancaster has just completed his 19th year at The New Community School in Richmond. The New Community School is a private school that prepares students with dyslexia to go to college. Lancaster served as the first middle school dean of student life at TNCS. He has now returned to teaching full time.

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