I used to have this same passion for education, and for teaching. I taught in an elementary classroom in inner city Detroit for six years before moving into a reading specialist position that stretched into the next seven. I loved teaching sixth graders. I loved that the range of budding adolescent brains afforded me the opportunity to delight them with a Shel Silverstein poem one minute and then shock them with a history lesson on the Holocaust in the next. I loved facilitating the buzz of literacy circles in the morning and being able to achieve the semi-somnolence required for independent reading and journaling on a snowy afternoon. I loved orchestrating the field trips that would add another little piece to their small world puzzles to evoke wonder and questions and a reach for something bigger. I loved lesson planning and coordinating bulletin boards with the changing of the seasons and the camaraderie of debriefing with my teaching partners when the work day was done.
What I did not love was the exhaustion. I recognized it early on from the first year, the first week, really, that I entered the classroom, and I knew, even then, that it could not be sustained. Because beyond the delight and wonder, the shock and awe, the moments of quiet achievement and the predictable rhythm of a school day, there is a world of dynamics and circumstances that will suck the very life out of the very best teachers -- especially the best teachers -- and especially in (but not limited to) the inner city. Weekends and holiday breaks and long summer vacations don't help. Please. Those are recovery periods.
What good teachers understand, and what just might be their undoing, is that children of poverty are loquacious. That they need opportunities to express themselves and to be heard, and that they need someone who can quiet them without breaking their spirit. That they recognize their own poverty and their own need (don't be fooled) early and they enter the school and the classroom with the expectation that they will be afforded a measure of fairness and stability that the street, and often home, does not offer. That they need constant praise and recognition in order to offset the injustices of their world and to thrive and grow. And good teachers give them all of these things, but not without the cost of the inherent exhaustion that comes with the giving, and eventually, their passion.
A day in the life of an inner city teacher (or otherwise) might go something like this (with variations according to grade levels):
- Teacher arrives early to get the jump on the day only to be intercepted by a parent demanding to know why their child arrived home with his coat unzipped (at best) or why their child is being bullied (which may or may not be valid, but requires more time than the teacher has for discussion).
- Teacher gets to his classroom with just a few minutes to spare only to find that the thirty pencils he purchased and carefully sharpened the previous evening have all been stolen from the pencil box (this is going to impede progress all day), and that glitter and pencil shavings, as well as Johnny's homework assignment that he ripped into a hundred little pieces are still covering the floor because the janitor went home early yesterday.
- Teacher can count on 1/3 of the class being up to an hour late (punctuality and attendance are often optional), so they plan accordingly with bellwork, busy work, and RtI (Response to Intervention) which often equates to catching up students who fall behind due to absences and tardies, and who might be absent, yet, again..
- Ten minutes of the math lesson is lost trying to coordinate an IEP for a student whose parents never showed up for the last one, and the entirety of the rest of the lesson is spent trying to compete with the noise and steady flow of "bathroom traffic" coming from the classroom next door who have a sub for the day . . . Meanwhile twelve of the thirty students learning New Math long division have colds and are going through the Kleenex like Piranha, and two adorably braided girls who were best friends yesterday suddenly can't sit together anymore to the point of violence because of an unfortunate Facebook altercation the evening before.
- After lunch, the hands-on science lesson/ experiment is interrupted by a fire drill that upsets an autistically challenged student so badly that he throws up on a classmate's head . . . at roughly the same moment, six students commence to shrieking because a bedbug with really bad timing is making his merry way across their table.
- Just before gym, which is teacher's prep time (and coveted 55 minutes of sanity), a student confides in her that he is not wearing any socks with his tennis shoes, and that his feet hurt and he is embarrassed to go to gym. She allows him to stay in the room with her and organize bookshelves while she enters grades into the computer. He talks the whole time, and she listens. Really listens. And never asks why he doesn't have on socks.
- At dismissal, Johnny suddenly remembers to hand teacher a note from his mother that demands to know why he never gets any homework, and while teacher is mulling over this, it comes to his attention that the two little braids are brawling on the playground. Teacher is second guessing her decision to just separate them during math over sacrificing more instructional time by alerting the school counselor when, after breaking up the fight, the mother of one little braid, who has been watching from her car in the parking lot, gets out to scream a juicy stream of obscenities at teacher for allowing the fight, at which point a parent in the car behind gets out to yell at teacher for allowing another parent to scream obscenities in the presence of children (this really happened - you can't make these things up).
- Teacher leaves late after an hour of tutoring and another of grading papers, but doesn't go home. . . she makes phone calls for the duration of her forty-five minute commute to plan the Christmas program and she stops at Wal-Mart to purchase pencils for the second time in a week, as well as a box of Kleenex, a pack of size 4-6 boys' athletic socks, Santa hats, and a bottle of wine.
Any good teacher who teaches just long enough (you'll notice I incorporated some gender equity here:) will experience all these things in one form or another. They do these things, and persevere in these things because they are passionate about what they do. They love their jobs and they love the children. And do you know what happens to them as a result of their heart and dedication and competence? They are rewarded with more students and more responsibility. Because they can handle it. Because they can be trusted with the students. Because when Ms. X down the hall fresh from college "didn't know it would be like this", or when Mr. Merriweather from the suburbs didn't understand what he was getting into, a good teacher is always on hand to take one more, or half a dozen, or a dozen when a class needs to be split up due to lack of teacher retention, or budgeting, or poor planning. A good teacher, in spite of all they have to offer, is sadly often reduced to a beast of burden when they would better serve as a paradigm.
Some of the above seems funny, and that's how I meant to present it -- partly for effect and partly because that's how teachers often remember it in the telling when they're debriefing at the end of the day, or days later, or months or years -- part of the camaraderie is in recognizing the heroes, and sometimes we laugh so we don't cry, when in the face of all this, we're told "we're not a good school", that what we did, what we endured, how hard we loved was not enough to make a difference in state scores that determine the bigger picture. Good teachers sometimes come from "bad schools" . . . sometimes the circumstances that render them such are beyond the control of a handful of faithful . . . Sometimes good teachers are only ever able to control their own little corner of the world and the beauty of that corner gets overlooked in the larger scheme of things . . . politics and egos and scapegoating and numbers . . . and if you are one in that handful, you know who you are, and if you haven't conceded yet to having done all that you can, take heart and don't give up. You're operating on your own timeline, and YOU will never be a failure, because you can always take your brilliance with you and shine somewhere else. You will only leave behind the dozens, maybe hundreds or thousands of children, who will carry your love and light forever no matter where you plant yourself to re-bloom.
When I entered the classroom thirteen years ago, I experienced these things, day after day, and year after year, and I set a five year goal for myself to move on before I burned out. At six and a half years, I came out of the classroom and stepped into a reading/ coaching position. I promised myself that I would never lose my connection to the classroom and my compassion for what a teacher's day is really like . . . that I would never forget or overlook the good ones . . . and that someday I would tell their story.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking that this passion that drives me was buried for far too long, that I sacrificed a part of myself and spent too many years spinning my wheels among the politics and the chaos and the numbers. But the truth is -- and I understand this to my very core even in my brief bouts of doubt and self-recrimination -- in stepping into another role, I got to experience another aspect of the educational system that would equip me to do just what I was always supposed to do . . . tell the story . . . the whole story. But that's another story for another day. . . I'm not quite there yet. For now, please, please hug a good teacher today . . . or the next time you run into one in the Wal-Mart. It won't be me.