I’ve been missing my dad this week. Things at work are not going well this year, for lots of different reasons, and Dad had this way of cutting through bullshit and getting right to the heart of matters.
When you are a teacher, your work becomes personal, no matter how hard you try to separate work life and personal life. I’m pretty good at that balance, actually. I hardly ever bring work home, even if it means going in early or staying later. Generally speaking, I leave my work stress in my classroom every night when I leave. And I have somehow mastered the ability to show my students love without bringing the stress of having 125 extra “children” in my life.
But there are always exceptions. This year is a big exception.
You don’t have to be too well-informed to know that education is going through a major transformation right now. All across the country, we are setting new standards, raising the rigor, and expecting so much more from our students and their teachers. And I understand why. We want to keep our students competitive in the job market. We want to keep the future of our country’s economy stable. And if you met some of my students today… Well, let’s just say you’d probably agree we needed to raise some expectations, too.
I love that more is being asked of and expected from teachers. Too many of my own teachers growing up were burned out professionals who taught from the same textbook they had learned from when they were in school. Their lessons were stale, their enthusiasm was non-existant, and their expectations of themselves and their students were low, to say the least.
But for every one teacher who taught like this, there were at least three more who lit the classroom on fire. Teachers like my very own mother-in-law, Jackie, who was my 7th AND 8th grade history teacher. I don’t ever remember opening a textbook in her class, but I definitely remember building hurricane resistant homes out of popsicle sticks and learning about Robert’s Rules of Order (Point of Information: I went on to work as a page in the Florida House of Representatives when I was in high school, and I remember the first time I saw RROO being used in real life. I think I always thought Jackie had just made them up herself!)
Teachers like Mrs.McDonald, my 9th grade English teacher, who was the first teacher I ever had who used the word “sexual” in class (oh my!). She was also the first person who told me I was a gifted writer. Teachers like Mr. King, my 10th grade English teacher, who could read “Beowulf” in the original Celtic dialect and who made Shakespearean plots explode with passion and power. And teachers like Mr. Mills, who taught AP History. His incredibly high expectations for his students raised all of us to levels we didn’t know we could reach – AND HE WASN’T EVEN MY TEACHER!
There are teachers in the world like Amy, who teaches down the hall from me at my current school. Like me, she teaches low performing students and students who have special needs. But if you heard her speak to her students, you would think they were the smartest, most gifted and talented students to ever walk inside our school. And teachers like Jessica, who is a reading teacher in my hallway. Her interactions with her students go far beyond classroom learning. She encourages and supports them in school, but is a huge advocate and cheerleader for them in every facet of their lives outside our school day, too.
And good teachers don’t happen by accident. We are all groomed and shaped by those teachers who have been in the classroom since I was a student myself. I learn most of what I teach by watching Tammy, one of the other 8th grade language arts teachers at my school. She has taught every level of student, every grade, every strategy, every curriculum, every anything that has blown through her classroom over the past almost 20 years. And yet, as seasoned has she is, she is the first to try a new technology tool in her classroom or the first to test drive a new idea or lesson plan. Her courageousness in the classroom is unmatched.
For every seasoned teacher that brings stability and validity to our profession, there is a new teacher, fresh out of school, like my friend, Steven, who teaches across the hall from me and is only in his second year of teaching. He’s 10 years younger than I am, but teaches like he has been doing it his entire life. He teaches as naturally as breathing. His involvement with his students, his commitment to their success, and his contribution to our profession is truly a thing to behold.
And, y’all. These are just the teachers on my hallway.
Good teaching is not easy to do, but it is prevalent in the school systems, I assure you. And with each remark in the news about the state of our country’s education, with each hurtful comment from parents who nonchalantly blame teachers for their own child’s failures, with each suit that walks through my classroom and scores me on how well I write a lesson plan, good teachers everywhere feel their heads hang a little lower.
I wish I could talk to my dad. I wish I could tell him I am not sure I’m doing enough. That I wish the teaching profession and the education system were different. But even as I type that, I know what he would say.
“Well, Kate,” he would say quietly. “Either do something about it, or quit complaining.”
For several weeks now, I have walked around feeling overwhelmed and disappointed with my job. But here is the thing…
When my lesson plans are submitted, when my common board is configured, when my technology is engaged, and when my classroom door closes, that’s when it becomes personal. That’s when it becomes more than just a job. And there is no time to be overwhelmed or disappointed when you have 120 children sitting in your classroom every day.
Those students aren’t overwhelming. They aren’t disappointing. They are my kids. And just like so many, many other teachers – both past and present – I’m going to put everything else in the world aside and teach them. Because that’s my job, yes. But mostly because they are what matters. They can’t afford for their teachers to wait around for laws to pass or for change to happen or for decisions to be made. They can’t afford for me to be overwhelmed and disappointed because, while teachers are sitting here wallowing about what has become this unrecognizable thing that is the education system today, the world is moving ahead. Jobs are being created. Economies are failing and succeeding.
The world marches on while we debate education reform and the people that are left waiting are not the government or the politicians or school boards or even the teachers. It’s the students. It’s always the students. They wait and they wait and they wait for the adults in the world to make decisions, and while they are waiting, the world around them marches ahead.
When I remind myself of this, the weight of my job and the frustrations in my classroom get smaller and smaller, until all that is left is a 14-year-old kid standing there. Waiting for me.