Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about becoming a teacher until I was already halfway through my degree as an English major, and I realized I had no idea what I would do once I graduated.
But, once the idea took root in my mind and I began to take the necessary steps to enter the education program at my university, I was excited. I knew that I had something to offer students. I knew I would be good.
I thought about the difference I would make in the lives of students who couldn’t read and write well. As their English teacher, I would spark students’ curiosity and wonder–help them see how literature is life, how literature feeds the soul. I imagined students returning to my 10th grade classroom, telling me that because of me, they had learned to love books–that I was THE REASON To Kill a Mockingbird was their favorite book.
At the time, I thought teaching would be the most rewarding profession I could ever have, and I was lucky. I would matter to my students, I thought. People would respect me and my work, because I wasn’t going to be a just good teacher; I would work to be the best.
That confidence and that insatiable desire to do well–to be the best–propelled me through my teaching certification coursework, student teaching (OMG! I almost died from exhaustion. It was SOOOOO hard!), and my first years as a novice teacher. But it only took me so far.
Student teaching presented the first indication that my reality as a teacher would be a far departure from the fantasy my imagination had once indulged. The majority of my students were good people, as individuals, but they were lousy students: unmotivated, lazy, chatty, defiant–sometimes aggressive– and SO far behind in reading development, vocabulary acquisition, and basic writing and grammar skills.
When I found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to reach some of my students, I coached myself through it. You’re a novice, I told myself. Everything gets better with experience. Once you’ve taught for a few years, you won’t have these problems anymore. Just keep working. Forgive yourself when you fall short. Get better. Be the best. Work hard. Sleep later.
And then, students didn’t read. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t study for their tests and quizzes. They didn’t participate in class. They stared blankly at me when I asked basic questions about a chapter that I had assigned a week earlier.
They didn’t follow the dress code. They broke the rules and became angry (hostile, even) when they were held accountable for it. They texted or Snapchatted their friends, even when you were talking to them. Many abandoned decency, unapologetically painting expletives and vulgarities in the air like works of art.
None of that mattered, not to the administration, not to the parents–at least, not enough. It was MY JOB to ensure that these kids learned. My job to make them care. My job to make them behave or deal with their behavior. My job to make them pass. I did what I could.
Of course, not ALL of the the students were lazy, defiant and rude. Some were perfect examples of diligence, human decency, and kindness. These students regarded me with desperate eyes, as if to say, “I’m sorry my classmates are being rude. I’m sorry our class has let you down.” I can always count on at least one of these students per class. They give me hope, but they’re the minority.
Still, most students could be convinced that doing at least SOME work for the class was worthwhile. Some really did want to learn–they just didn’t want to have to work for it. They turned in papers with their names on them replete with plagiarized nonsense, sloppy handwriting, and made-up answers. They turned in essays written during their 40-minute lunch period on the due date, laden with spelling errors and flimsy and unsubstantiated arguments. Meanwhile, I agonized for hours, correcting errors and making suggestions for improvement that would never be acknowledged.
Why It’s a No Go
Now in my sixth year as a teacher, I wake up to the same reality every day, and it’s killing my soul.
I love my students, even the difficult ones, and I wish them well. Why else would I work as hard as I do for even the smallest ounce of progress on their part? However, I don’t have much left to give. My energy, my patience, and my enthusiasm have all waned.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I know what it’s like to walk in a teacher’s shoes. Now, I’m ready for a different pair.