Kim Bearden, the motivational speaker for the teacher’s back-to-school assembly last week, told entertaining stories. She has been recognized many times for her contributions as an educator including being awarded teacher-of-the-year in Georgia. She co-founded a school with Ron Clark in the inner city of Atlanta which has had 29,000 visitors in the 8 years since it was established.

Besides her speaking engagements, Kim continues to be a middle school English teacher. She and her staff are committed to providing a lively learning environment where children are valued, challenged, and nurtured, but it hasn’t always been easy.

As a young and idealistic teacher, she asked her principal to give her his toughest assignment. The colleagues she was assigned to work with were so negative that they reminded her of the dementors in Harry Potter. When you entered a room, they sucked all the life out of you so that you couldn’t breathe. 

When she was ready to quit, the principal moved her one hallway over and it was like a parallel universe. The rigor was harder, the discipline better, and student achievement was higher. 

The difference seemed to be that these teachers had the ability to connect with their students. They shared a common purpose and were unified in being there for each student. They didn’t let life’s bumps in the road steal their joy. Kids know which teachers don’t like teaching.

About the time she was winning all her awards, she found out the handsome charming man she had married was leading a secret double life. She wanted to live the perfect life that looked like a Pinterest board but instead it now looked a lot like a Jerry Springer episode.

She didn’t want to get out of bed, she began viewing her students as a burden, and her teaching went on auto pilot. Luckily an amazing teacher friend who taught next door listened and helped by reminding her that teaching had brought Kim joy. 

Kim couldn’t control the difficult circumstances unfolding in her life, but she could let teaching be her joy again. Every day fell short of perfection, but she chose, with the talent that she had, to lift up her students. She forgave herself for falling short. 

When life gets messy, don’t let it steal your joy. Happiness is the best revenge. What was happening to her did not define her. Instead she focused on making what happened through her matter.

Everyone has a story that’s still being written. Teachers have challenges and struggles similar to those of their students. It’s difficult when marital problems, money issues, concerns about children, deteriorating parents and health matters all affect their ability to show up as their best selves for students.  

Though she used to feel broken and powerless, Kim found her strength and has been making a difference ever since. In the past year, over 5,000 educators have visited her classroom. Powerful teachers are not defined by their ability to control things, but by the power to empower others.

Kim succeeded because she intentionally surrounded herself with those who fueled her soul. She chose her friends wisely and spent time with the ones who helped reenergize her. She advised the audience to care enough about themselves to seek out that kind of support as well. Kids come first, but she told her staff to uplift themselves and each other.  

One of the things that the teachers at her school do to improve their teaching is to videotape themselves. “We evaluate ourselves and we do it voluntarily.” Even one of her best teachers at the school who was so joyful when talking about her students cried when she viewed her own videotape.  

The teacher realized that she had a positive interaction with everyone else in the class except her most disruptive child. She vowed to change that but he was so troubled that she had to greet him before he even entered her room.

It’s important to hold the vision of what students can become, not who they are. Teachers plant seeds of possibility.  

She advised teachers to make sure that what happens through them matters. Then the exponential power of the ripple effect can pass through the school and transform the learning there.

Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long-time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at [email protected].