He Who Does the Work Learns

Facing Teaching in Delaware County, Indiana, Teaching

Deb Kirkman’s story as told to Deena Wickliffe

It took a long time to say I was good. Good means healed from a childhood bout with cancer, recovering from failed relationships and losing important people in my life. As for being good as a teacher, that took some time too. I know I’m good not because I won an award, which I did, but because my students tell me I am good. They tell me this in so many ways over my 28-year career, and I will continue to listen to them to be better than I already am in the future years of my career.

“He who does the work learns, but The Voice never leads you in a wrong direction.” I’ll take full credit for this saying because I’ve modified it a bit from the one that you might know, but it is my mantra. Teaching is what I was meant to do and learning from my students is the consequence. I can immediately call to mind the students that taught me the most, everything from the contagious behavior of some of my middle school boys that spread throughout the class and made everyone want to learn to the kids that turned out to be responsible adults that give back to this world as a result of something I did that helped them along the way. I learned that I do matter to them, and I can change the course of their life in a positive or negative way. It is my choice.

I was raised and surrounded by educators. It seems odd then that I would want to do something else, but I did not want to be a teacher when I started my adventure in college. I’d had enough experiences with oncology nurses in my recovery from Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment as a child that I thought I might try my hand at nursing. Don’t get me wrong, I was not enchanted with the idea, but I knew I needed to go somewhere with a degree and the love of science I gained from my father put me on this path.
I heard God’s Voice loud and clear. I heard it more than one time. The Voice said “Teaching is your path, Deb.”

My voice was louder when I replied, “No way, Jose!”

No matter how loud I was, God’s Voice persisted. Days passed and It was still there. The conversation became heated and I was sure I was making myself clear, but doubt began to set in and I slowly questioned the decision I had made to be a nurse. “Really, I survived cancer to just be a teacher? Isn’t there something bigger I am supposed to do?” I asked. He simply responded, “There is nothing bigger.”

My life trajectory was set. I became an elementary teacher, a substitute teacher and finally found myself in a middle school classroom. Room 111, to be exact. This is the same number my soon to be deceased, beloved father taught in as well at another school. This was the first sign that I had made the right decision. I’d already received another sign before I started teaching that I did not recognize at the time. That is that my doctors told my parents I would not speak after my cancer surgery because they severed my vocal cords. With no medical intervention I eventually started speaking again before I graduated from high school. What other tool does a teacher rely more on than her voice? I slowly began to realize that the signs were there all along. The Voice was opening my eyes to all that I needed to do to make my life matter. All I had to do was listen.

So how do I use my life experiences to be what my middle school students need? How do you reach students that are struggling with their own demons and circumstances? How can you justify leaving curriculum on the back burner long enough to make the necessary adjustments to engage the students? How do you convince a student that they learn more from their mistakes than from their successes? And finally, how do I manage my personal life and still allow myself to be available to my students when they need me to be?

These are the questions that every good teacher asks and asks themselves again, year after year. The solutions change with each group. Humanizing myself is what allows all of the other things to happen. Walking the line between being the authority and being the co-conspirator is what I learned to do. Listening to the kids, separating the behavior of a student from who that student could be, using peer pressure as a tool of student management, taking risks with the kids and using my passion for my field of expertise as a vehicle to teach kids how to take responsibility for their own learning. These are the things that define not only what I do, but who I am.

Teaching is not an easy job. Lesson planning, administrative duties and the never ending professional development requirements make it a year around job. Spending time with kids 181 days of the year for 28 years is not hard. My personal experiences, my love for life, and my own education have led me to a place in my life where I can connect with young kids in a way that changes both my life and their life for the better. I think it might be something I was born with– the intuition needed to make these important connections, but I measure my success by degrees. I add up all of the times I changed a student’s life trajectory just 5% before they left my classroom, and I can verify with this data that indeed, I am a good teacher.


Deb: I am a 36-year cancer survivor who was blessed to be a mother, wife and teacher. When I am not guiding my students on co-adventures; I love spending time with my horses. Life is to be lived with no regrets.

Deena: I am a science teacher with 27 years of experience and a passion for the complex process of helping kids recognize their potential. Celebrating my colleague through this process has been a blessing.

This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Previous Post
A Teacher’s Heart
Next Post
A Pocket Biography of a Teacher of the Year