I love teaching. I wrap my heart around my students. For 25 years, I have kept my students and the art of teaching at the top of my list of priorities. Sure, they share that spot with my husband and 2 boys, but I’m pretty sure my family would say that there have been times when they feel like they came in a distant second.
What is it about teaching that reached out and grabbed me away from my dreams of being a journalist, a sports photographer, Barbara Walters? Well, it wasn’t good timing, that’s for sure. I discovered the teaching career path when schools were busting at the seams with teachers. Education classes at Georgia State University were full of people changing directions to head into the classroom. I sat next to unemployed engineers and unhappy tax accountants who decided to flee corporate America and try to save the world one kid at a time. I did my student teaching at a high school in suburban Atlanta where veteran teachers had their own classrooms, reserved parking spaces, and showed no signs of retiring and making room for me.
The social studies department at this school was comprised of two kinds of teachers. First, there were the male coaches who seemed to be teachers until about lunch time when they donned their CHS windbreakers to monitor the lunch block and focused their energy on the day’s practice schedule or game day bus logistics. If I had a question for my cooperating teacher, and I use that term loosely, I was told to look for him in the athletic office. The female social studies teachers were equally stereotypical, but in a way that I hoped to emulate. I remember several women, no more than a handful, who held court in their classrooms and garnered the respect of both their students and their co-workers. I saw how they held the attention of their teenage audience during class and then chose to spend their lunch period eating with and listening to their students. These are the people who helped me survive teaching four different preps to five class periods for 16 weeks. I put these women on a pedestal and aimed to teach like them in the future.
So, what is so great about teaching? Everything.
One thing I realize in hindsight is that I needed, I craved, the structure of a school day. No matter what else was going on in my life, the school bell starts and I had to be there, ready to deliver. Teachers don’t get to be late. Teachers don’t get to reschedule. I’ve had a variety of contractual start times over my 25 year teaching career, 7:10 am, 7:30 am, 8:00am, and all of them helped focus my energy and my effort. Being ready for the beginning of the school day is definitely what helped me recognize the beauty and freedom of early mornings. Getting out of bed before the sun is in the sky used to be my time to grade a class set of papers, or figure out the timing of a lesson plan without interruption by my kids. Now, with an empty nest, it is time to drink coffee, meditate, and walk the dog. The structure of a school schedule also prohibited me from procrastinating about grading. How do you explain to 120 faces that you haven’t graded their work yet? Didn’t they have a due date to meet? How can you ask them to turn in work on time if you don’t grade it on time? I needed that structure so that when I got overwhelmed by work, family, and life I had a compass point to keep me focused in a productive direction. Did I choose teaching because I am task oriented, or am I task oriented because I’m a teacher? I don’t know.
I love teaching because I love making connections with people. I think if my 16 year old self looked at that sentence she would be surprised by it. That self was awkward, shy, desperate for acceptance and pretty selfish. Teaching isn’t a solo career. If you don’t want contact with people, go be an actuary or write contracts in a law firm. The best teachers I know have close and meaningful relationships with their students.
I know I am taking a risk when I give my heart to my students. The first student to break my heart was also the one who convinced me that teaching is worth it. Back at Campbell High School in suburban Atlanta, in the Psychology class I taught for my cooperating teacher, there was a student whose name I can’t remember, but whose soul I will never forget. This student sat in the third seat of the second row from the windows. He wore jeans and a dark t-shirt every day. He had straight unkept hair, dark eyes, and a full mouth that never showed even a hint of a smile. Every time I introduced a concept and we discussed it as a class he kept silent. Tossing a ball around the room to encourage participation didn’t phase him because his peers knew not to throw it in his direction. He was like a black hole that everyone avoided. I didn’t get the impression people were afraid of him. I had the feeling he was sad and wanted very much to disappear.
The last week I was there I asked the students to do a project about self identify. This was in the 1990s, way before any inkling of sexual identity options. We were focused on personality traits and birth order – stuff like that. I could have predicted that this kid wouldn’t complete the activity, and I was right. There is no big miracle here. But, on the last day I taught that class, I knelt down next to his desk as I often did to talk quietly into his ear while his forehead rested on the desktop. I told him I appreciated him letting me teach this class and that I’m sorry I couldn’t help him more. That’s when he reached over to me and offered me a tightly folded wad of notebook paper. I thanked him, stood up, and don’t remember what happened after that. What I do remember is that on that paper, in pencil, he had written me his version of a thank you note. He thanked me for not giving up on him even when he didn’t try. I was hooked.
I really wish I had kept that note, or I could at least remember that student’s name. But, I do have that feeling and that memory that carried me through the first years of substitute teaching, part time work, and finally into my full time tenured position.
I am so lucky to have a new teaching job where I get to mentor and teach high school seniors about the teaching profession. There is nothing like being a teacher. I love it. I love having an outlet for creativity. I love having kids lean on me to know things about the world. I love answering students’ questions with another question that sets us on a path to a project. It is such a great way to make a living, and live a life.
Unfortunately, in this chaotic world, the school house is about to get even more unstable with the upcoming teacher shortage. How are we going to draw bright young people into this complex and underappreciated profession? I’m sure states and districts will figure out a way to increase starting salaries so we can compete at job fairs. But, I think the way to find people who can teach the next generation is to look for those who understand what’s going on in students’ heads but aim for their hearts. If we can figure out how to do that, schools will be okay.