Cup 28

Person: Ellen C

Drink: medium green tea, Bean and Leaf Cafe, Royal Oak, MI 


Ellen C has a challenging job.

She teaches first grade at an elementary school in Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit.

I can’t imagine capturing the attention of a couple dozen seven year olds and keeping it long enough to cover the principles of basic math and proper nouns. I’m just not fit for the elementary school scene, which is why I admire those that have a passion for it. 

And that was before I even met Ellen.

Hearing her story increased my admiration while simultaneously creating an urge to send thank you letters to the elementary teachers in my life that truly made a difference.

Ellen works at a school where many of the children are living at or below the poverty line. Her greatest challenge is getting the students to practice their reading at home—and over the summer—but for many of the parents, there are higher priorities than taking 15 minutes to sit and read a book, especially for the few students that don’t have permanent homes.

That’s just one difficulty. She has standardized testing to deal with, frustrating parents, ever increasing class sizes, and decreasing attention spans impeding on her goal to educate students and prepare them for their futures.

She was telling me about her experience as a teacher as we sat in this adorable cafe filled with a varied clientele of students studying, people meeting to talk business, and others just enjoying coffee on a sunny afternoon. Ellen was a little reserved, but genuinely amiable and engaging. It was a pleasant conversation that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the difficulty of job of teaching students who are facing very difficult situations.

She acknowledged that her job isn’t easy and there are a lot of tough days, but the kids keep her going. She knows she can make a difference in their lives. 

She knows this firsthand; she had plans to become an architect, but it was a third grade teacher that changed her mind. When she was in high school, an elementary school teacher needed a volunteer to spend an hour in her classroom once a week and Ellen was interested in the role. It was through that experience that she discovered her love for teaching and changed her plans for college.

And it is a decision she is happy about. She finds fulfillment in her job. For some of the students, she is their only source of support and encouragement and seeing the students learn and grow makes it possible to overlook the imperfections of the school system. 

At least for now. She has seen the stress of the job wear people down and make them bitter. She said if she reaches that point she’ll leave teaching. There are students depending on her; she knows she has the power to change lives, but she only wants to change them if it’s for the better. 

I respected her for that because I’ve had incredible teachers in my academic career and I’ve had teachers that clearly no longer found joy in their jobs. As Ellen spoke, I couldn’t help but think back to my own memories of elementary school—from the first day of school, my backpack stocked with a fresh sets of Crayolas to the weekly trips to the library, made up recess games, and the awful food they fed us at lunch. Those were the days when homework assignments consisted of craft projects and every holiday was cause for celebration and cupcakes. 

Looking back, I realize the excitement of school was just a bunch of new knowledge cleverly disguised as fun. I couldn’t appreciate what my teachers did for me until much later, after I’d moved on to the next step of my life.

Ellen puts so much of her heart and soul into a challenging and underappreciated job so that her students can have a brighter future. Some students will come back and say thank you, but most will not.

Ellen and I continued our conversation past the realm of education. We talked about her experience at Michigan State, her involvement in Detroit community events, travel, books, and more. It was enjoyable conversation, but what really stuck with me once I got on the interstate to head back to East Lansing was how we often under appreciate teachers even though they are some of the most important people in our lives. 

But that doesn’t stop them from working hard, which is the lesson I’ll take away from Cup 28. Sometimes the situation isn’t ideal. Sometimes it takes a lot of work before you see a pay off. And sometimes your efforts will go unnoticed. 

But if it’s for a worthy cause—if it’s something that changes the world—it’s worth doing. 

And it’s worth doing right.