More than a Teacher

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 and 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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In a personal essay, one of my students had hastily written out her story of despair and depression; in the end, she wondered if life was worth living. Not long after, she would try to take her own life, despite my and the counselors’ interventions and best efforts, despite everything I could do in class to help her feel valued. I later found out that she had been told by classmate that she should stop threatening to take her life and to just do it already. So she had tried.

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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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I saw her huddled in the bathroom stall, crying. When she came to class later that day, she sat in her desk, staring into space, her work unfinished before her. Her attendance became more and more sporadic. The boy who sits next to her in class asked one day, “Where is that girl that normally sits next to me? I don’t know her name.” Again, an email came in: she had tried to kill herself and was recovering.

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She shouted at her friends and stormed down the hallway. I was unsettled and upset; I knew something just wasn’t right. I checked my school email that afternoon; her friend had emailed, saying she had gotten a goodbye text from her and didn’t know what to do. The text had been written 45 minutes earlier. I panicked, looked up her contact information and called her house, my heart in my throat. Her father answered and told me he hadn’t seen her for a while. I asked him to check on her, and waited for a tortured few minutes, uttering what I feared to be too-late prayers under my breath. He came back and told me she was fine, and that she seemed shocked but touched that I had called. I told him to let her know I looked forward to seeing her the next day in class. I hung up, relief flooding my veins.

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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’m looking. And too often, I am not. Too often, I am tired. I am busy. I am frantically running around the classroom, doing my main job, which is to teach. I am grading papers, answering 50 questions for the 50th time, planning lessons, and supervising activities. I am going to faculty meetings and training meetings and collaboration meetings and district meetings—all required, all mandated, all deemed necessary for me to be a good teacher. I am entering grades and taking attendance and writing letters of recommendation and signing trip notes and attending assemblies and dances. I am taking tickets at basketball games and going to theater performances and football games. I am eating lunch standing up while entering grades and making copies, all at the same time. I am picking up books and papers and creating and filing worksheets and handouts. I am writing student objectives and filling out teacher goals. I am learning new technology and downloading apps to use it. Did I mention making copies? Because I am making copies and copies and copies and copies and copies and copies. I am desperately hunting YouTube for educational videos. I am gathering make-up work to send home to sick students and answering emails from parents, students, and faculty. I am cleaning desks and administering end-of-year tests and helping kids register for classes. I am holding meetings for service clubs and supervising the writing of graduation speeches.

Yes, too often, I don’t see these kids, because I am doing all of these other things, things I must do to teach. Because I am a teacher. 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. But I am a piece. And what I do with that piece is up to me.

And it is exhausting. I got to a point a couple weeks ago where 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 at it. Just for an afternoon. And I sat at my desk and just 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—which also meant I wouldn’t have to feel my students' gaping holes of need, holes that I am always struggling to fill, shoveling handfuls of dirt into what seem like bottomless pits. It would be so much easier to just stop caring. It would be so much easier to not see. Because the thing is, it drains me, and when I get home, I feel I have nothing more to give to my own life or family.

So, drained, I try to walk past the girl crying in the hallway, and I almost make it before my heart knocks quietly on my brain and makes me stop and go back, ask if she is okay, and then invite her into my room where she can cry in more privacy before her friends come to whisk her away with hugs and murmurs of support. 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, and meet his eyes, and smile, and steel my resolve as he follows me to my classroom, chattering the entire way. I try to look busy and ignore the student who sits in front of me during lunch, begging me with her silence to ask about her day so she can talk; but in the end, I set down my things and calm my restless and tired spirit and ask about her day. I try to ignore the tears welling up in a failing students’ eyes as she asks what she can do to bring her grade up; I want to snap at her that she’s failing because she hasn’t turned in any work all term; but her eyes implore, and I sigh, and swallow my impatience and ask if she’s okay.

And I get up each morning, and I go back to school again, and I see their faces, and I know that I need to continue. I know, deep down in my bones, that 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.

I need to be more than I was ever taught in college or trained to be in observation hours. My college education left me woefully under-prepared, in fact, not prepared at all for what the majority of teaching 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. Things that can’t be bestowed in workshops, and can’t be legislated or enhanced with pay. They are learned in the furnace of trial and hard daily experience in the classroom.  And if I am not 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.