06 August 2014

Why I (still) teach.

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.  Maybe it was my love of school.  Maybe it was my love of performance.  Maybe it was the fact that so many of the people in my family worked in schools, so it just seemed like what adults did.  Whatever the reason, it was always a part of my game plan.  So I paid attention.  I watched what teachers did that I liked and what teachers did that I didn't.  I saved assignments and projects that mattered to me.  I kept in touch with a handful of the best teachers I had in junior high and high school well after I left home.  I wanted to be prepared.

I think every new teacher goes into the job a bit starry eyed.  Some people fixate on their favorite Hollywood version of a teacher or an idealized view of their own past teachers, or, in my case, a combination of the above with the addition of some literary examples I admired.  I knew that I never wanted to be the kind of teacher that was just there for the job.  I didn't want my students to just leave with better factual knowledge of English.  I wanted to make them better.

As I started working with other teachers and prospective teachers, I learned that I was not alone in that desire.  Nearly everyone I talked to spoke with frankness about how they knew that they would deal with large classes, with frustrating hoops to jump through, with long hours and the endless thumping of music from school dances and assemblies; but none of it mattered.  We shared a common dream: we wanted to be the kind of teacher that would change brains but would also change lives.  No one goes into teaching for the money or for the so-called summers off, or for the "easy" hours or "easy" job description.  No.  Teachers enter the field with gusto and with the desire to work.  Some are more or less prepared for exactly how much work it is, but no one goes in with the idea that they're in for something cushy.

I understood in theory (and now understand in practice) that teaching is far from a glamorous profession.  It is a job where the cards are increasingly stacked against you.  From No Child Left Behind to state testing and the implementation of Common Core, to endless meetings and stacks of papers to grade with as much equal attention and fairness as you can possibly muster no matter how many times you have to read about the symbolism of The Great Gatsby; it is a job only for someone who has an absolute love of what they do that overshadows the fact that the government (and many of the people you serve) no longer care about your opinion at all.

The very thing that makes teaching wonderful (that heart) is also a threat.  Teaching is a complete labor of love.  So much of what you do is because you care to.  The job description requires you to be in the building and in your classes for certain hours.  Requires you to get your students through their state testing intelligently.  Requires you to update grades on a regular basis and to take attendance.  Requires your adult body to tell students where they can and can't eat their lunch or when they can be in the halls.  But the art of teaching?  The decorating of your room or the creativity of your assignments or the way you communicate with students and their parents - that is where teaching really becomes something special, and it's also where you get the most grief.  For not communicating the same way as another teacher.  For not giving assignments the same way as their teacher last year.  For any number of things that are more or less legitimate to whine about.

I know many people who have left the job.  Capable, brilliant teachers who have not so much as burned out but stormed out.  The hours are long.  The job too thankless.  The art of teaching and the craft of it is too misunderstood and not so much under appreciated as not acknowledged at all to be worth staying in for many.  After all - everyone went to school, right?  So everyone knows exactly what good teachers do.  No amount of education about education can immunize a teacher from a person who is certain they know better.

In my time as a teacher, I have started to understand why people leave.  I have had parents harass me for every reason under the sun.  I've been praised for the same skills I've been bashed over - in one night of conferences I'll have parents thank me for entering grades regularly and parents state that I don't update grades quickly enough.  I've had parents accuse me of purposefully losing student work, and others praise my organizational skills.  I've had angry emails at all hours of the day and night, parents blaming me for their kid plagiarizing assignments, blaming me for being too hard on their children, for being elitist, for thinking I'm better than everyone else, for being unavailable.  I've had parents coming into my room without appointments to chew me out for extended periods of time (once even in the middle of class) and demonstrated behavior that, if I had worked in a normal office, would have probably led to security removing them from the room until they were ready to resolve conflict appropriately.

And that's just the parents.  I also lived through an abusive boss whose behavior still has me trying to find my feet.  Still trying to get that courage and feeling of safety and not of paranoia.  Nearly two years later and the depression of those months is still finding its way out the door.  And what about the government and politics of teaching?  The government (and parents) expect me to be the right teacher, the perfect teacher, for every kid in my room.  But I am imperfect, and my students are imperfect, and our personalities and habits will not always mesh.  What's a person to do?  Sometimes teaching feels like a no-win situation.  No matter what you do, you will do it wrong for someone.

Sitting in my classroom after a summer of preparation and goals for innovation today, I started thinking.  Why am I still here?  Why, when so many have left and with perfectly good reason, have I kept my job?  I am not without other ambitions or opportunities.  I would love to go back to school myself.  Wouldn't mind a job that leaves work at work.  I am a practical person - I do need the money - but heaven knows that if there is one thing everyone understands about teaching it is how underfunded my job is.  I could make more money elsewhere, probably doing a lot less and with a lot less bother.  So why do I stay?

I started to make a list.

I stay because although I used to work under an abusive boss, that is no longer the case.  I now work with an administrative team who supports me and lets me be myself.

I stay for the kid who came into my class after leaving a school where he was bullied.  For months he could hardly get up the nerve to say anything.  Every assignment was terrifying.  By the time he left me, he was able to give a presentation in class in front of everyone and make it through in one piece.

I stay because of the kid who came into my room as a socially awkward rather gangly teen who was not a natural academic but learned to be a natural workhorse.  I've never seen anyone work so hard for such great reward.

I stay for the kid who came in knowing that my class was too big for him, but also not knowing where else to go.  He stayed, we worked to find ways to make him comfortable, and he thrived.  The gratitude in his face when we found the right solution to a challenge for him was beautiful.

I stay for the kids who cared about me enough to go hunt down an adult in the school to substitute my class so that I can join them on a field trip.

I stay for my fellow teachers.  I am so fortunate to work with the staff I do.  They are vibrant, interesting, engaging, opinionated people who are so willing to work and develop and grow.  I love that when I give tours of the school, I can talk about the unique things that go on in each room.  I love that my school is not an androgynous mush of rooms differentiated only by subject - we have teachers that try to be their best selves.  It's marvelous.

I stay for the parents who kindly let me know what a difference they see in their child.  This is particularly amazing when I don't know the extent of the struggles in a child's life to see how far they've come.

I stay for the emails I get from students who have moved on thanking me for this lesson or that book that has changed them, or made their lives better.

I stay for the students who see me as a retreat from their problems.  Who will come and sit in my office let me know what they are thinking or feeling because they aren't sure how to safely share themselves with others yet.  I honor those connections and pray that the advice I give isn't damaging but uplifting and encouraging.

I stay for the days in class when discussion is awesome.  When people groan after the bell rings.  When people stay behind to chat because they're not done yet.  When students are passionate enough about what we are reading (either because they love it that much or hate it that much) that they can't even express themselves with words any more.  When students email me asking for book recommendations.

I stay because I too love to learn.  Because I love the opportunity I get a thousand times a day to try something new.

I stay for the office supplies.  It's true.  It's petty, but it's true.  I love new pens and post it notes and gradebooks organized into neat little rows like vegetables in a garden.

I stay because I love laughing with my students.  I love when they say or do things that are so interesting and unique and awesome that I can't even contain myself.

I stay because my students challenge me to see life in new ways and from new perspectives.

I stay because, for me, at least, it's the right thing to do.  I will not always be what people want me to be or need me to be.  How I run my classroom, how I grade papers, the papers I assign in the first place, the books I recommend - I will never please everyone.  I will never reach everyone.  There will be days ahead of me where I, again, listen to parents express how furious they are with me for not doing x or y to their satisfaction.  Who will refuse to believe, no matter the evidence, anything other than what they want to believe about me - that I am a truly awful person put on this earth to be the trial that must be overcome.  That I would do what I do for the sole purpose of hating their child and destroying their life.  Parents who will hear their children admit that they did x or didn't do y and look at reasonable evidence of sufficient effort on my part and still blame me for whatever they're upset about rather than try to come up with a good solution.  But I intend to keep working hard and to do the job I believe is right for me to do.

I stay because the world needs great teachers.  And while I will never claim the "great" for myself, I will proudly continue to claim the title of teacher, and continue each year to try and strive toward greatness, no matter the obstacles in my way.

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