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What I Wish You Knew About Teaching

June 7, 2013

“This class makes me want to die!” he yells as he slams the laptop screen shut. He stands up, knocks his chair to the floor, and walks out of my classroom. Rather, he storms out. Rather, he stomps out. Rather, he slams my door shut in his manner of leaving that is now becoming all too typical. Freak out. Yell. Throw around some expletives. Leave.

Super.

But you know what? Of course this class makes him want to die. Of course. It’s a remedial literacy period. It’s an entire class period wholly devoted to the particular area of school that makes him feel completely incompetent. It’s a class where time is spent on the thing he’s learned to hate the most, that requires all of his mental energy, and that seldom shows him the fruits of his labor. Re-learning how to read sucks. Re-learning how to write sucks. It’s like realizing that the relationship you’ve been in for  the past 14 years is actually no good. That relationship is actually on a one-way track to Nowheresville with no proposal or wedding bells or babies at the end. What do you do when all you’ve known is that 14 year standstill? What do you do if you let it go and have to start all over again? All. Over. Again. 14 year break ups are a bitch. Facing the teacher and the class that required you to have that involuntary break-up is an even greater bitch. So I get the whole wanting to die thing. I do.

I drive home. I think about my student. I run and re-run the next week of class in my head. I start to change readings. I start to change projects. I start to mentally redesign two week’s worth of material so that there’s an off-chance he won’t want to die when he walks into class. Will I have time to preview those articles on Ebsco? Would that author really respond to my emails? How do you set up Skype in South Africa? My brain is on overload and the wheels do not stop spinning.

I’m still reeling even after laying my son down to bed. I stay up way past my own bedtime and way too late into the evening, and I work and I toil to get some material together that will make my student not want to die. I upload and email and pin-save my documents to get everything ready for him for the next morning. Mind you, I’m doing this for just one out of five of my classes. Thankfully, no one wanted to die in the other four. Well, at least, no one told me.

I go to work the next day and anxiously await my literacy class. I explain our new project, our new readings, our new audience and purpose for writing. I sing and I dance and I do the whole dog-and-pony show just trying, desperately trying, to convince my students this is worthy of their interest and engagement. I say a silent prayer as my aforementioned student gets to work. He opens the computer. He begins tapping on the keys. He finds the article online and actually begins to read it. He’s reading it!

“UGH – I want to die!” he yells. Screen slam. Chair knock-over. Stomping. Storming. Slamming. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Oh. my. God.

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Is it possible to actually explode? To have my body actually separate into thousands of tiny particles like the kid in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Is it possible to actually melt from fatigue and demoralization – right here, right now? To drip like wax into the multi-colored carpet of my classroom floor? Because that’s what I feel like doing. The rest of my class of 25 students gives me quizzical looks. I smile and work my powers of diplomacy to get them to move on.

This, friends, is real teaching. This is real reality. I do not know what you imagine when you imagine teachers, but this is it. Here we are. A bunch of hard-working, passionate, bend-over-backward-for-any-individual kid, return-to-the-drawing-board-a-thousand-times kind of people. We get it right a lot of the time. We get it wrong a lot of the time. We face obstacles with our students that are often bigger than us. We uncover victories that are often too subtle for the untrained eye to see. We welcome kids through our doors in whatever shape they’re in, with whatever home life they’ve got, and whatever attitude they have about learning. We work for an unrelenting clientele.

That kid who sits in the back of our classes and says nothing all year – we work for him.

That girl who knocks every assignment out of the park and needs a challenge to reach her personal best – we work for her.

The 3 or 4 students who need proper coaching in constructive group work – we work for them.

The boy who is too distracted by Little Miss Short Shorts to pay attention to my discussion of “The Veldt” – I work for him.

My student who slams computers and leaves in a huff – yes, I work for him too.

I work for these kids. I work for their families. I work for their confidence and competence and risk-taking and set-backs. I work to finally get that girl into class on time. I work to see the kid who lost his dad crack a smile. I work to get the two all-American athletes to include the weird kid in an authentic, non-patronizing way. I work to get my students to love books. I work to get them to trust adults. I work to get them to understand, and respect, the boundaries. And I work to get them to develop a coherent thesis statement.

I go home thinking about 100 individual kids. I stay up at night replaying conversations, recreating documents, writing meaningful feedback on essays, and responding to homework questions over email. Could I do that differently tomorrow? Did she accept that feedback well? Did I stop to make him feel heard? Did I email that parent? For the love of God, do they know what a verb is yet?

It’s exhausting work. It’s thankless work. It’s all-consuming work.

It’s work that cannot be measured on any high-stakes test or government evaluation system. The day my student walks in my room and feels like he does not want to die will be the day I count myself successful. Until then, the warriors shall battle on.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2013 9:15 pm

    Well-said. Thanks for putting into words what all of us feel and do every day. And absolutely no test can measure these little successes that turn into big ones when they accumulate over time.

  2. October 26, 2013 2:19 pm

    Good God. Thirty one years of teaching experience and your story still makes me cry. Baseball players get a hit three times in every ten at bats and get paid millions of dollars as a super star. We teachers get a hit with nine out of ten kids, and the tenth one dies because we didn’t get through to him. It hurts to be a teacher. Why do we keep doing it? Thank you for putting the answer into words.

  3. October 26, 2013 2:21 pm

    Reblogged this on Catch a Falling Star and commented:
    Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be a teacher. Then you’ve got to read this.

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