It All Starts In The Soil – One Graduates Journey to Seeing Her Students Flourish

BTR cohort 18 graduate Brandi’ Dorch shared with her fellow residents how she learned to care for and nurture students individuals to see them grow. Continue reading below for an excerpt from Brandi’s speech.

“As much as I genuinely hate that you all nominated me to be your speaker, I am equally if not more, honored that you thought of me to both close out our time together and launch us into the newness of what is to come. So in likeness of this year and all of the firsts we had to do, without knowing what the heck we were doing, here goes the first time I am writing and reciting a speech. Consider it a love letter.

If you walked up to me a year ago, and told me that I would be a teacher, I would say that you were absolutely ridiculous and never in a million years. Yet, Here I am, giving the commencement speech to a residency program for teaching. Not only has this year stretched us thin, often to a point where we had no elasticity left, but it has also allowed us to see a part of ourselves that we may not have known we had. Often I ask God, “why me? As a teacher” When I ever learned of the responsibility it took to teach young minds, I had to do my own reflection and research, a digging up rather, of my reasons for being here. There is a reason why each of us are here. There is a reason why you are in this work, and came this far, worked tremendously hard and stayed in the fight and I’m here to tell you that it’s all in the soil.

Here are some things I’ve seen this year.

I’ve seen elementary students check out their bodies in a mirror before going back to class, I’ve seen them feel embarrassed, pout, hide under tables, defend themselves from classmates, then defend their classmates from their teachers, articulate their feelings, I’ve seen them recall not so good moments from the grade prior and carry them over to our current class, that helped form their reasoning as to why they don’t like a classmate, because of how that person made them feel. They’ve experienced nerves that have completely shut them down from following through with the assignment we gave them. I’ve also seen tremendous persistence and perseverance from both our students and in us, to learn how to do many things and juggle everything, while holding onto our sanity, even if it’s just a strand of hope that keeps us together ALL amidst a pandemic that computer screens, blue light glasses, masks, shields and social distancing kept us well aware of.

And if I’m being honest, which I am, what our students have felt, are not far off from all the things we’ve experienced this year. I know you’ve cried, because I have. I know you’ve screamed silently or out loud, because I have. And even if you didn’t pray like I did, I know you hoped for something better than whatever THIS was. Although many of us would rather live without change, we took on new things together, oftentimes thrown into it yet we always came out on the other side, even if we lost some feelings and nerve endings on the way. We have lived through feelings of unworthiness while simultaneously navigating new content, new spaces and new expectations for our role. I know that because we’ve talked about it with each other. The truth is, this work reveals more of our similarities than it does our differences. While simultaneously using our differences to uplift and affirm every part of who we are, or at least it should. Teaching Is not a pretty career, it’s a necessary one.

We’ve made this connection before, but similar to gardening, teaching is done in the light, during the day, yet planting seeds or offering new ways of thinking is done in the darkness of the soil. Towards the end of the year, I realized that I needed to revisit my expectations as to what a good day was, because so many things had changed since the year before. I realized that I was coming into class looking for flowers. As in flowers, I mean students who can’t stop thanking you for all the things they are learning, who have 100% follow through with assignments and participation and are confident in their ideas and perspective. And I can sense you ALL judging me right now, you’re probably saying to yourself does this girl really expect children to be thankful and actually vocalize it? The answer is YES, I do! Or I did rather. I went through a whole process where I would challenge myself to think about why I felt I needed affirmation from a child that a lesson was good or worth their time. Some of the questions I asked myself, I will now ask you. And the expectation is that you answer orally, out loud, so that I can hear you. Is that clear teachers? Do you think a seed knows it’s full potential and all the beauty it holds? If you plant a seed today, will you see it sprout tomorrow? So like… if you teach students something today, are you looking for them to understand everything by tomorrow? Right, but if you can’t see the growth, does that mean the seed was never planted? Exactly, it just means you must continue in your pursuit to one day see it sprout, by keeping up with the care instructions of each individual, exposing it to light, love, and necessary nutrition. That’s what those routines are for that we’ve been practicing all year long. They give the seed or the child something to look forward to, something to rely on as they are being exposed to new changes and new content. And when we’ve done all of that, we look around and see that it’s a little wet in some areas, it’s dirty. But again, teaching, although we may look good doing it, is not a pretty career, it’s a necessary one. And one that you’ve been chosen and equipped to do. Me too.

I received a book of poems from a friend, called “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur. One of the poems stuck to me. It reads:
“I am a museum full of art, but you had your eyes shut” (pg.100)

I’ll read it again… What does that mean? It means that someone had the opportunity to be in the midst of something unique, personal, beautiful, full of color, but never opened their eyes to see it. Imagine that.

Hey teachers, do NOT shut your eyes to the beautiful work in front of you. Open your eyes wide. See your students, see their humanity, see their differences, see their strengths, their weaknesses and let your classroom be the space that houses everything they bring. Where students not only feel, but know that they are not just a display, but are seen. The difference is your level of interaction. Being seen requires you to come closer and recognize all the intricate things that make them up. So that in the museum of your classroom, our students can be held and strategically placed in the right space, the right light, and the right frame that shows them off — because they deserve to be celebrated.

It was no coincidence to me that in the last week of school, the plant that I planted along with the rest of the class, in April, had finally blossomed. I’ve been watching it sprout and grow tall, but the first time I saw the color of its petals was on the day we took it home. That was a sign to me, that the beauty of growth may not always be visible, but in due time it will show off who it was always meant to be to everyone around it. The work we enter with our students will do the same. Teachers, hey! keep your eyes wide open, so that you can witness all the things that have been sewn into the soil of your classroom. Growth is always happening, even when it’s not evident to the eye just yet. My prayer for each of us, is that as we begin to see all the colors, all the beauty, the vulnerability and the strength of our students rise to the surface and grow big and tall, that if we were to trace the flower petals, down to its stem, down underground to its roots and then to its seed, we’d recognize that that seed was planted and nurtured in the classroom.

And for everything else: all the feelings of unworthiness, confusion, doubt, fear, anxiety, leave that in the dirt, not because it wasn’t useful but because there’s much more to show for us than what we’ve been through. Focus on all that you are becoming and stay connected to whatever grounds you. So that as you create an environment for your own students to thrive and feel a sense of connection to themselves and those around them, it doesn’t feel foreign to you, who is also a human- being. We are worthy just by being who we are, and I don’t know if you know, but it’s a big deal that God trusts us with such vulnerable things, like a child’s mind that holds incredible potential, harvest, and infinite imagination. Make it your mission to see them. And here goes the last time I’m finna say this, OPEN your eyes wide, so that you can also see the splendor of you.”

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