I drove into the delta, Northern Louisiana, along the two-lane highway that led to Thaddeus’s school. Fields of cotton and pecan on one side, rusted out railroad tracks and the skeletons of cotton gins on the other. An old gas station. A Sonic. A church and well-tended flower garden.

Prosperity washed away by flood waters and left like silt on the side of the river after the tides of mechanization and corporate farming swept through.

Children grow here like wild flowers, in rich soil but often harsh conditions; their existence in this place seems almost a miracle.

This is where Thaddeus was born. This is where he teaches today. It’s where he set up the first algebra II/trigonometry offered in the high school — ever.

His door is at the end of the hall and, over it, the words painted with care: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” —Matthew 11:28

When I asked him why he came back to his hometown to teach, this is what he told me:

“I remember when I got my teaching degree. I graduated at the top of my class. And I remember, at graduation, the dean of our program came up to me and asked me where I was planning to teach in the fall. When I told him I was going back home to teach, he said he was surprised. When I asked why, he said I shouldn’t take him wrong and he really thought it was ‘admirable’ and all, but he thought that with my grades and skills that I could have gotten a job in one of the ‘better’ parishes. I said, ‘Yes, sir, I could have.’

These kids, these are my kids. I’m from here, I was raised here. I walked these halls. I sat in these desks. So I understand what these kids go through.

There are too many people who don’t think these kids will amount to much; that it’s not even worth trying. I mean, let’s be honest — if I just told you about this school, the community it’s in, the kids who grow up here, what percentage of folks are on welfare, you might say, ‘Man, poor them. Ain’t nothin’ up there; they got it so tough. No wonder their kids are broken.’

The kids here, they envision their future with guarded optimism. And their reality every day tells them that their aspirations may not be quite their reality. It’s our job to help them imagine themselves a future brighter than what they see at the end of the block. And to give them the knowledge and opportunities they need to change their reality. I try to be that. I tell them, ‘I grew up on your block, I went to university. You can be like me. I’m just a rusty ol’ fence with some paint on it. Come on in an’ let me help you get some paint on that fence of yours ‘cause it looks like it might could be a fine one.’” 

Just up the highway, past the fields, the rusted-out rail cars and John Deere tractors, there’s a light on in the high school before the sun comes up and after it goes down. That’s Thaddeus. A teacher like so many others in little towns and hollers, with a paintbrush and a fierce belief, helping students to splash their futures with technicolor.

These are the kinds of teachers our students — and our communities — need more of.

Ironically, though, theirs are the stories and voices that we sometimes lose in the din of debate around how to get more talented teachers to the schools, classrooms, and students who most need them. So, we’re handing over the keyboard this fall to educators in high-need schools to tell us why they teach where they do and what keeps them coming back. The series, Why I Teach Where I Teach, features fresh, powerful voices from classrooms across the country — with passion, humor, commitment, and critical lessons for all of us concerned about getting all students access to the great teachers they need.

This post is a part of an ongoing series, called “Why I Teach Where I Teach,” which asks educators in high-need schools to share what has attracted (and kept) them in the challenging environments they’re in. They share important stories and experiences that should remind us all of the power of strong school leadership, a network of supportive colleagues, and the genuine opportunity to have a say in schoolwide decisions. Listen up! They’re teaching us.