Why I Teach

The Letters

What keeps Michelle Spathelf in the classroom? Giving truant teenagers—and their families—hope.

Michelle Spathelf
Photography by Alyssa Schukar

It takes patience and a lot of love to do what I do each day. Some days, it takes a lot of tears, too. What makes my job absolutely worth it in the end? The letters.

I am an alternative high school teacher, and every one of my graduates has written me a letter. It is not something I assign or ask them to do; it is something that just happens. In each letter are memories from the class, lessons they recall and jokes that we had.

I teach a classroom full of truant teenagers at risk for dropping out. So many adults in my students’ lives have given up on them. Much of the time, even their own families have given up on them; they are at their wits’ ends, desperate for any help our program can give their children. My job is to give these students and their families hope.

I am blessed to work in a computer-based program that helps students recover their credits. I guide and facilitate their computer learning, tutor them individually in all subject areas and teach P.E. and life skills classes. That is the easy part. Getting truant teenagers to come into my classroom in the first place is the tricky part.

Not many people can do what I do. And it is because I truly care about my kids and want them to succeed.

Before I get a single letter, my connection with students begins with the tone that I set on the very first day of class: “This room is a safe place. We can share ideas in here. We are a family in here. When you are not here, I notice and I care. I will send someone to your house to find out why you are not here. And when you come back, I will welcome you. I will always tell you that I am glad you are here.”

And, for the most part, the fact that someone cares enough to figure out why they are not at school is all they need. They come back.

Other times, my students do not come to school because their basic needs are not met. When they are hungry, I feed them and send them home with food. 

I have been yelled at, cursed at, threatened, pushed around and moved to tears countless times at my job. I have been called every name in the book. And, often, I get this from my best students.

So … why do I do it?

This is a question I get asked by just about everyone who finds out what I do. My response is always the same. “Not many people can do what I do. And it is because I truly care about my kids and want them to succeed.” My students often tell me that I must be very patient to work with them each day. The truth is, I understand where they are coming from. I remember my high school counselor telling me that I would never get into college or amount to anything. That message resounds in my head as I talk to my students. I know they have heard similar things over the years, and the last thing I want is for them to actually believe it.

When I get letters from my graduates, the bulk of what they say is “thank you”: thank you for never giving up, for noticing when they were sad, rejoicing when they succeeded, encouraging them when they struggled and crying with them when they cried. It is a thank you for helping to get them to that very point in life and a promise to keep in touch.

Knowing concretely that my teaching made a difference is why I continue to work with the anxious and downtrodden students who matriculate in my classroom. I have each letter put away somewhere safe so that, even on my bad days, I will remember why I do this work.

Michelle Spathelf is a truancy teacher in Joliet, Illinois.

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