Awful Leads to Wonderful

By Trevor Barton 9-11-2012
Farming illustration, Konstantin Sutyagin /
Farming illustration, Konstantin Sutyagin /

Being a teacher is like being a farmer. You rise early in the morning. You irrigate and fertilize the field that is your classroom. You plant the seeds that are reading, writing, and arithmetic. You hope for good soil, warm sunshine, and gentle rain that are good homes, healthy foods, and adequate healthcare for your students. You work with your hands, feet and heart with your plants who are your students. 

Your harvest is your students. 

Your winter season of fallow fields is your summer break of empty classrooms.

My Grandpa was a farmer and once he told me, "When you're a farmer, you live in a 7-year cycle. One year will be wonderful. One year will be awful. Two years will lean toward the wonderful. Two years will lean toward the awful. And one year will be in the middle."

This year was the wonderful year for me. My students learned to read and began reading to learn! Five of them gained more than 30 points on their Measure of Academic Progress scores for reading. I saw them bloom as little scholars and whole human beings. 

My first year of teaching was awful. My lack of teaching experience and the needs of that particular class of second-graders made for a failed crop ... at least as determined by their MAP scores and my administration.

This year, I could keep on teaching through the summer months right into the new school year.

That year, I could have put away my mule and plow and hung up my hoe and quit.

What can we do during those awful years and those years that lean toward awful to keep on teaching?

Reflecting on women in the Civil Rights Movements helped me. 

I read the book Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965 by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods with a group of students in a Civil Rights history class as I was pursuing my Master of Arts in Teaching degree. I learned that these remarkable women had some awful years, too, as they worked toward their wonderful goal of equal rights for black people, for all people. 

I learned about Fannie Lou Hamer, who was beaten mercilessly in a Sunflower County, Miss., jail cell for her efforts to register African American voters. Later, she would speak eloquently before the 1964 Democratic Convention and the nation on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in opposition to Mississippi's all-white delegation to the convention. 

Awful led to wonderful because she hoped and worked, stayed, and fought.

I learned about Ella Baker, who worked toward the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was about people struggling together in a democratic society to make America a more human place for all people (and democratic work is indeed a struggle), rather than about Mosaic-type leaders leading an oppressed people to a promised land. 

Awful led to wonderful because she lived unseen and unheard by most people in the world, but she was intelligent and a heart of the movement.

I learned about Modjeska Simkins, who taught high school at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia in my own state of South Carolina; she was forced to resign after eight years because married women weren't allowed to be teachers. 

Awful led to wonderful as she went on to become the secretary of the South Carolina Branch of the NAACP from 1941-1957 and helped write the court case Briggs v. Elliott in Clarendon County, S.C. which grew into the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that ended legalized segregation in public schools.

These women and so many others — Septima Poinsette Clark, who helped create the Citizenship Schools upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built; Jo Ann Gibson Robinson who helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and so many others — didn't quit. The rows they hoed were long and hard, but look at their harvest—you, me and the students we teach!

How was your last year? Wherever it fell in the 7-year farming cycle, please remember that your work is a seed in fallow ground that is bringing life to all people, regardless of color, nationality, socio-economic status, sex, ability, or sexual orientation. Your life is showing our students and all of us that we are human beings of inestimable worth.

Thank you.

Keep farming.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, SC. He is a blogger for the Teaching Toleranceproject of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Farming illustration, Konstantin Sutyagin /

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