More Than a Teacher

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By Adena and Amy

Every day in class, he sat hunched in his desk, eyes down, shoulders turned inward, in his own silent world. He didn’t talk to anyone. Everyone ignored him. His grades started slipping. Then, he wasn’t in class for a few days and I received the email from the counselors: he had tried to commit suicide. Two months later he was back in class. Everyone still ignored him. He still sat hunched in his desk, not talking to anyone.

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She was hostile and unfriendly, caustic and abrupt; her attitude and every word seemed to say, “Stay away from me.” I considered having her transferred out of my class because she wasn’t doing well and obviously didn’t like me. Then one day she stayed after school, late, working on a project. She dawdled and ignored my hints about the time. Then a man identifying himself as her father stormed into my classroom, shouted her name, grabbed her arm and dragged her outside cursing at her and berating her, calling her names, yanking her to the car.

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As I told my student’s mother the test scores her son had gotten on his reading comprehension exam, his mother’s eyes narrowed and she spit out, “I knew he was stupid, but I didn’t know he was that stupid,” and then turned and scowled at her son, who was sitting right there.

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Should I go on? Because I could. These stories all come from my first couple years as a teacher, but in over a decade of teaching, I have seen a lot more.

I am a teacher. I see these kids for a few hours a week. But that is enough to see them, to really see them, if I am looking.

And there’s the catch: If I am looking. And too often, I am not. Too often, I am tired, busy, frantically running around the classroom, grading papers, answering 50 questions for the 50th time, planning lessons, and supervising activities. My days are filled with the tasks that are required of me to be a good teacher: going to faculty and training and collaboration and district meetings. My To Do list as a teacher is on-going, enormous and ever-expanding.

Yes, too often, I don’t see these kids, because I am doing so many other things that go under the heading of “educator.” But, truth be told, I do so much more than teach. Every day, I try to summon up more energy to go beyond all the necessities of teaching to actually make more of a difference, the kind of difference that has a real, true impact.

So, I try. I really do. Because here’s the thing: I have to. If I don’t, I have failed. I know that the fate and future of my students doesn’t rest solely upon my shoulders alone—I am just one piece in the larger puzzle. What I do with that piece is up to me.

And it is exhausting. A couple weeks ago, I felt so drained dry of any strength—including emotional reserves—that I locked my door and didn’t open it when kids came pounding on it. Just for an afternoon. I sat at my desk, breathed in the silence, and tried not to cry. I fought the urge to quit right then, to take my laughably, tragically small chunk of retirement money and find a shack in the mountains where I could huddle by myself and never have to see another human being again. It would be so much easier to just stop caring and choose to not see. Because the thing is, when I get home, I feel I have nothing more to give to my own life or family.

So, drained, I try to ignore the boy that I know has no friends, who likes to demand attention at inconvenient times, and I almost make it past him without making eye contact; but in the end, I can’t do it. I invite him to accompany me to my classroom, and he follows me, chattering the entire way. The student who sits in front of me during lunch begs me with her silence to ask about her day. In the end, I set down my things and calm my restless, tired spirit and say, “So, how are you?” When one of too many failing students comes to me crying, begging me to help her, I want to snap at her that she’s failing because she hasn’t turned in any work all term. But her eyes implore, so I sigh, swallow my impatience and ask if she’s okay.

I get up each morning and go back to school again. I see my students’ faces and know that I need to continue. I have to lengthen my stride and be better because I refuse to be a dark puzzle piece in their lives. And I fail too often. For every kind act I give, there are dozens of other opportunities that I miss, or choose to ignore because I am too busy or tired.

Every day, teachers instruct hundreds of children. Your children. My children. The children who will someday be responsible for keeping this world running. I see 240 of your children every two days. And for a solid 64 minutes, yes, I am their teacher…but I also need to be so much more.

My college education left me woefully under-prepared, even not prepared at all for what my real job description is. Teaching is one tiny part instructing in reading, or writing, or math, or science, and one billion parts other things that you simply can’t train for. They are learned in the furnace of trial and hard daily experience in the classroom.  And if I am not able to perform those billion other things that I need to be as a teacher, I cannot forgive myself.

So, I ask for your patience. I ask for your prayers, not only for me, but also for the precious souls who grace me with their beautiful presence for a brief moment each day. And they are so beautiful: they shine with individuality, with joy, with personality, humor, wit and intelligence. But they also bear wounds and carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. And often, they have self-doubt that clouds their own beautiful light from their eyes. As a teacher, if I can, for a few minutes each day, shine the light of their beauty back on them, so that they can see their potential and strength for themselves, then, and only then, can I call my job—which is so much more than being a teacher—a success.

From Inside-Out Minds

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