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Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The Power of a Thank-You

October 8, 2015

Shelby Denhof


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This is the second installment in a year-long series of written and video diary entries by Shelby Denhof, who is letting us follow her first year of teaching. To see all entries, click here.


I haven’t had any serious doubts about becoming a teacher. At least not yet. I’m one of the lucky ones, one who got a job quickly and didn’t have to move to find it. I do know how fortunate I am. The shock hasn’t worn off. Sometimes when I walk down the hallways by myself in the early morning, I catch myself thinking about how this is a dream come true.

These first three weeks in my own classroom have given me much to think about, but I want to share a special story.

Let me tell you about Adam.

Student teaching was a year ago, yet I can still picture his defiant look, sitting on top of his desk, shoes smearing dirt on a pile of unfinished assignments spilled on his chair. I would give instructions and Adam would look me right in the eye, acknowledging that he heard me, and then choose to ignore what I said. I didn’t know how to deal with a kid like that.

This kid’s defiance frustrated all of the teachers he’d ever had. Heck, it frustrated me too. It frustrated me a lot. I pulled him in the hall one day to talk to him. He had been making every effort not to follow directions, pulling other students down with him.

“What are you doing, Adam?” I asked him. “You’re a bright kid, dude. I know you can do this. I want to see you succeed.”

I expected him to laugh at me for what I said, but he didn’t.

His eyes shifted from mine to the floor, shaking his head. “Why do you care about me?” he asked after a moment. Not dismissively, but sincerely. I was taken aback.

“Why do I care about you?” I repeated. “Adam, you’re one of my students. Of course I care about you. You might not believe me, but I like having you in class. You’re smart and you’re witty and I really do want to see you succeed.”

He wouldn’t really look at me after that. We walked back into class, he sat down, and he started working.

With that, I figured out what I needed to do: I needed to be a cheerleader for this kid. I needed to give him love and support and room to grow. I needed to help him build up confidence in himself so he could see himself succeed.

When I asked him about his future, he told me he wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was shocked; here’s a kid that wouldn’t put in effort for even just a day, yet had a goal that would take years of hard work and dedication to accomplish.

“Adam, you can’t just sign up for the Navy and get to fly jets. You have to go to college,” I said one day—multiple days—out of frustration, watching him leave a wake of incomplete assignments.

“Well, I’ll care about school when I’m in college,” he retorted, continuing to scribble on the cover of his workbook.

“You won’t get to college without caring about school now.”

It was times like that when he would noticeably shut down. I hadn’t handled it well. We’d go back to step one.

Late in the semester, I handed him a letter before class. He accepted it, eyes squinted in confusion, waiting for an explanation. “I know you want to be a pilot in the Navy,” I started. “Well, I actually know someone who does that. I told him about you and asked him to write you a letter with advice on how to accomplish this goal. Don’t read it right now, but wait until you get home.”

The next day, I hoped Adam would mention the letter. I naively expected all of his defiance to go away. It didn’t, and he didn’t bring the letter up. Not the next day or any day after that. I finished student teaching wondering if I made any real impact on Adam at all.


That was a year ago and Adam still pops into my mind. Did anything I said stick with him? How is he doing now? I thought there was no way to have my questions answered.

This past Monday after school, I heard a knock on my classroom door. Standing there was Adam. He’d heard where I was working and came to see me.

We made small talk and laughed for a few minutes before Adam jumped into the reason for his visit.

“I’d never had a teacher care about me before,” he said. “Thank you.”

He listed the reasons why I deserved a thank-you. The letter was one of them. “I always wondered what you thought about that!” I laughed, having my curiosity satisfied. “I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to make it a big deal if it wasn’t for you.”

He shook his head, “No, that letter was awesome!” Adam went on to tell me about how he still had the letter, now hanging up on his wall at home. He told me he has a job now and that he’s caring more about school.

“I’m in a lot better place than I was last year,” he admitted. And I could see it. His face was relaxed, his head held up a little bit higher.

He told me about his family and his friends and his classes and he asked about my job, offering up advice on handling “kids like him” at the middle school level. As he looked around the room, he told me, “I didn’t think I was going to pass eighth grade. You’ve got to have some kids like that, kids who don’t want to do anything. Just keep pushing them. Talk with them. They’ll come around.”

It was getting close to 4. We’d been talking for an hour. “Adam, it was so great to see you,” I told him, patting him on the shoulder.

“I’ll come by again,” he promised on his way out.

I wasn’t in a rush to head home just yet. I needed to savor that moment, that thank-you. There’s a power and punch to every sincere thank-you, and this was an especially heavy hitter. What a rare moment it is to be validated and affirmed by the Adams in the classroom, in life. Barely through my third week of school, this thank-you will stick with me the rest of year. I’ve put it in my back pocket to pull out when the challenges arise, because I know they will, sooner or later. ♦


If you’re a new teacher, the Cult of Pedagogy New Teacher Checklist will provide a structure to follow as you progress through the school year. To download a free copy, just sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get the checklist, plus all the other free downloads in my Members-Only Library. (If you’re already a subscriber and want this resource, just check your most recent email for a link to the Members-Only Library!)



  1. This is a great entry! I’ve forwarded this and the first one to my first-year teachers. This, and other entries, are why I enjoy my subscription to “Cult of Pedagogy” so much! Do you guys have anything on male teachers at an all boys school? Any resources that might be unique to a single-gender environment? Thanks!

    • Glenn, that’s a great question. I have never explored single-gender teaching. I will put that on my list of topics for future blog posts. Thanks.

  2. Stephanie H. says:

    This was great! I’m currently in the midst of student teaching this semester and these posts have been so encouraging and helpful to me as I begin my teaching career. Can’t wait to read more.

  3. meral says:

    Thank you for this great encouraging post! 🙂

  4. Alicia says:

    After reading ‘Student Thank You,’ and listening to the interview with Miss Denhaf, I’m eager to return to my students on Tuesday (3 day weekend) with a refreshed purpose to encourage my English students to grow with me. The shadow journaling is a welcome idea. Maybe I’ll apply for a mini grant too. Congratulations and thank you!

  5. Wow… I just got all tingly inside. That’s a powerful student. Thanks for the encouragement.

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