In the last year, I had two moments that reinforced my motivations for teaching.

On the plane to TMC18, I had downloaded A Trip to Unicorn Island. It’s a YouTube Premium feature film chronicling Lilly Singh (~14 million subscribers as of today) and how she got from making vlogs in her room to taking a motivational dance show across the world. There was no particular reason I was watching it other than I had heard about it and thought it’d be interesting. The premise of the movie is Lilly decides, arbitrarily and with no experience with anything at this scale, to embark on a world tour to share her happy place with people, something she calls Unicorn Island. There’s skits, dancing, and a serious break in the middle where she talks with the audience about finding a happy place that keeps you motivated. Naturally, there are some low points. With the planning still in infancy, the scale of the project hits her and we have this moment:

“I do a lot of this. I do a lot of sitting by myself in this room, looking at my screen. I feel like, my life is slowly becoming something no one can relate to. And then in moments like that why am I doing this? This sucks.”

And it was one of the most relatable scenes I’ve watched in a movie. Lilly, and highly motivated creators like her, project complete confidence. You know they believe in what they’re doing. At the same time, their struggles can be very individual. Who knows what’s it like to plan a world tour? Who knows what it’s like to plan a world tour while also maintaining a day job uploading well polished YouTube content that several million people have come to expect?

I’ve had these moments as an educator. In particular, earlier in the summer when my year of Calculus efforts got me not a whole lot. On the surface, yeah, I’m a Calculus teacher, lesson planning is challenging. Lesson planning is challenging for everyone. But Calculus, like math, or really education in general, is a reflection on equity problems. I fight these equity problems every day. There are only so many Calculus teachers, and there are only so many Calculus teachers trying to get the work done with one hand while trying to overcome built in inequities with the other. In general, my students have a glass ceiling constructed by economic factors they have no control over, decisions that were made for them, and decisions that were made 10 years ago. And despite all of that, 95% of them are highly motivated to give Calculus a go, and they have a lot of fun doing it. I believe 100% in their ability to register on the scale, there is no reason they can’t. But every year the College Board tells me “good try, maybe next year.”

And I have moments where I’m working on yet another Calculus approach, staring at my screen, thinking why am I doing this? This sucks.

But I keep going, because there are bigger pieces moving. The next group will be better because of the struggles of those that came before. Operating big complicated projects is fun. Varsity Math is a very complicated project. There’s a lot of money, time, and merchandise involved. But I am so confident the results are going to be great that I push through. It is that confidence I admire in Lilly and other creators like her. I know this is going to be great, but you have to trust me. I don’t care how crazy you think I am.

Second, was Won’t You Be My Neighbor? the history of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The whole film spoke to me and reinforced the need to make my classroom a fun and positive atmosphere. Fred Rogers was just the nicest man. He had a respect for children and their opinions that maybe you can only appreciate if you are a teacher. Too many people dismiss children as ill-equipped to speak their minds. I say those people have never taken the time to listen to what the kids have to say.

My specific teaching experience is full of unique situations that no one can understand. Every teacher is the same way. Only you know your kids, know your goals, and know the effort required to get the job done in your room every day. And a LOT of people are going to say you’re doing fine or “that’s neat” with no appreciation for the hundreds of hours you spend grinding to get there. And that’s fine because it’s not about them, it’s about the satisfaction with the work you’re doing. Get things done the way you want to get them done.

Finding the confidence to try something crazy, know it’s going to work, and know it’s going to be great was a huge turning point for me. Letting kids be kids and express themselves was another. When the whole room knows we can do this and that my voice matters, it’s a beautiful thing.

AuthorJonathan Claydon