September 24, 2013 / SCHOOLING YOU
September 24, 2013
The title of this post may lead you to believe that I’m going to talk to you about how I teach all day, come home, and grade papers and tests all night. It might lead you to believe that I’m going to discuss education policy and reform, and why I feel my students are getting a bad deal. You may be preparing yourself to skim through a post about how, even with the state American education is in right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage students to become teachers.
This is not that post.
A few years ago, it was my responsibility to teach 186 ninth grade students. And yes, I got very little done at school everyday. Yes, I took work home with me every night and did work on the weekends. Yes, I also worked a part-time job to afford rent. Yes, I struggled to complete grad school at the same time. Yes, I spent my summers in professional development classes, and yes, I get very, very annoyed when people reduce a teacher’s job so far down as to say they’ve “got it so easy” getting all that time off.
I welcomed such people into my classroom on numerous occasions so they could see exactly how easy it is to manage 186 ninth graders. Not one person took me up on my offer.
The truth is that, while I have very strong feelings about all of that, and while I’d spent my entire life since the age of three preparing to become a teacher, I couldn’t make it. I’m a really hard worker. I’m very driven.
And I still couldn’t make it.
It’s given me so much more respect for teachers than I ever had before (which was already a lot).
We all knew a teacher who ran in at the last minute during homeroom, was out the door with the final bell, and never made much of an effort to get to know the studetns in between. Even the following year, we’d get the feeling he or she had forgotten our names.
During my short four years as a teacher, I was fortunate enough to encounter some truly remarkable students—in the academic sense, yes, but also as people.
What I discovered early on was this: fourteen-year olds are still perceptive. They may not always act like it, but they want to be treated as equals. It’s obviously much easier to do this with some than with others—exactly how it is with many adults, too.
Sure, I wanted to share my love of literature with my students, but I also wanted to know who they were. I didn’t want to be that teacher who didn’t know my students as people. I wanted to invest in them. To fulfill my passion, I coached softball and served as the advisor to a community service club, both of which afforded me ample time to “hang out” and learn who my students were outside the classroom. It allowed them to get to know me as well, and in the process, build their trust in me.
Suddenly I found myself with students in my classroom during my planning periods because they wanted to talk to me about their lives. They wanted to ask for my advice when choosing classes. They needed help with homework or had a question about the MLA Style Guide. Former students would come back and ask me questions about the college experience as they prepared to apply to universities.
When I announced that I wouldn’t be returning to my job and would be moving back to my hometown in another state, the students with whom I’d become the closest surrounded me on the last day of school, giving me hugs, helping me pack up my classroom, making going-away “care packages” for me, and writing me truly thoughtful thank you notes.
Teachers are often criticized for their use of social media because they’re often scrutinized to a higher degree than most users. I see it as a good way to extend your positive influence if you’re smart about it. Through email and Facebook, I was able to keep in touch with my students. As I kept an eye on their college application progress, many of them reached out to me for recommendation letters. From two states away, I was happy to oblige.
And when I turned up at their high school graduation ceremonies, they gave me big hugs and told me how much it meant to them for me to be there.
When they got to college, some of them reached out to me to ask how to deal with homesickness and separation anxiety. They wanted to know how to find financial aid and what was the best way to go about distance learning. They contacted me when they got in trouble— not because they wanted me to help them out of it or justify their actions, but because they wanted a trusted adult to listen to the mistakes they made without judging or punishing them.
They told me about new friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, and how they felt closer to their college friends now than their high school friends. This year, many of my former students are college seniors and juniors. Some have graduated already and are out in the “real world.”
And yet, there are still a handful of former students who will call me up or send me a message on Facebook regularly because they still want my help. They have questions or want to talk about applying for jobs, finding apartments, relocating, or dealing with the post-college blues.
I cannot even express to you how happy it makes me to know them and to be able to continue to help them. I see the amazing things some of them are doing, like playing for nationally-known college sports teams, getting national recognition for leadership skills in college, starting a modeling career—and I’m so proud of them and to know them.
My former students are totally inspiring to me. It’s also reassuring to know that, although my original career track didn’t work out for me, I still made a difference. I may have moved away and switched careers, but I never stopped caring about my students. It’s been nearly four years since my final year of teaching ended and still, my job is never done. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.