Sheryl Green: Putting out fires

Sheryl Green

Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Sheryl Green
Sheryl Green

Editor’s note: Today we welcome a new Wednesday columnist, Sheryl Green, an English teacher at Jordan High School. Each week, she’ll be sharing lessons learned in the classroom and in life. Look for Richard Hyatt’s column every Sunday.

Let me tell you why I do what I do. It’s because of Jonathan. 

About seven years ago, I was teaching in a rural Georgia school. The small country town had one high school that shared a building with the only middle school. It’s a tiny town where everyone has a recognizable face. 

Into my British Literature class walks this country bumpkin with a simple white T-shirt and worn-out jeans tucked into dusty boots. His name was Jonathan. He sat in my classroom for an entire school year, doing very little work. He was one of my favorite kids, though. Bubbly personality. Polite. Funny.

I would try my best to encourage him to actually do some work, but nothing seemed to motivate him. I was uncompromising, though. I was a well-trained, highly educated teacher with 11 years of teaching under my belt, so I felt it was my right to be uncompromising. I maintained very high expectations in my class and did not waver in requiring my students to meet those expectations. Jonathan made his choice. 

Weeks before graduation, Jonathan and his father were in panic mode because Jonathan’s grade fell well below the passing mark of 70. A meeting was set up with the Guidance Department, but for me, the meeting was going to be straightforward. I had a folder full of, at best, mediocre work. The most damning evidence, however, was a missing essay on “The Canterbury Tales.” Without the essay, there would be very little I could do to help the country boy. 

Then, Dad began to speak.

He laid out the details of Jonathan’s life in the local fire department, beginning when Jonathan could barely hold up a hose. He relayed how fighting fires was his passion, how helping people was his life’s goal. He outlined the details of what was waiting for Jonathan outside of this little town: an all-expenses-paid, six-week training course in faraway Massachusetts, specialized training that would earn him an officer position, and the opportunity to make way more money than I was making as a teacher. 

The details caused my jaw to drop, literally. I had no clue. 

Jonathan was a friendly face in my class. I liked the kid, tried to help the kid, and enjoyed having the kid in my class, but I never got to know the kid. What motivated him was not Beowulf or Shakespeare. It was fighting fires. But I had no clue. In the hierarchy of what was important in my classroom, my agenda, my desire to be seen as a quality teacher, my desire for respect was placed far above a young man in jeans and a T-shirt who wanted to be a fireman.

My entire concept of my role as a teacher shifted at that very moment. It’s not about me and my personal or professional agenda. It’s about the kids and what they aspire to, what they dream about, what they want out of life. Who am I to stand in their way?

A teacher’s job, I now know, is to help students find a goal if one is missing, to assist students on their way toward meeting their goals, and most importantly to put the students first — above all else.

Teachers just might find quietly sitting in the back of the classroom a doctor, a lawyer, or a fireman wearing a simple white T-shirt and worn out jeans tucked in dusty boots.

Jonathan … he’s why I do what I do.

— Sheryl Green is an independent correspondent. Reach her at