I remember the first day I walked into my first classroom, and I stood there for the longest time looking at 30 empty desks, empty bulletin boards and an empty chalk board, and I was terrified. I was excited. With tears welling in my eyes, I was so full of emotion. There would be voices in that room in a matter of days. There would be young people who craved knowledge I was prepared to give and others who would fight me tooth and nail all year as I tried every possible strategy from textbooks, psychological strategies, my own upbringing and a dash of instinct to cram even a minute grain of information into their lives. I was a teacher. A certified, highly educated teacher. And I was a teacher because it was a calling. I was a teacher because there had been teachers in my life who inspired me to be more than I was and who told me I could, even when my own heart and mind were filled with doubt.
I looked back on my own education and remembered a few standardized exams that we took, but they just sort of came up, and we were excited to be able to take a test on which we got to color in bubbles instead of writing out answers. The rest of the time, we listened and we read and we wrote and we practiced hand writing and spelling and we learned what being a good citizen was by having discussions, and some things were really hard, and others were really easy, and we were able to discover what were good at, what we could use to craft into careers or college majors. We got on buses and went to see, to smell, to taste, and to touch the “real” world – something some of us had never been able to experience before.
We messed up sometimes, and we were punished quickly and sternly, and we knew that was not something intelligent people, like we were told we were, would do again. We were not coddled. We were not placated, and our parents were in charge at home but were not in charge at school. We had administrators who were committed to a building full of children and the educational goals they needed to reach, not statuses, not statistics, not titles, and most certainly not money.
I enter my classroom today and know that I will have at least one student backtalk me but I will not bother to send him to the office if he has this assistant principal, but I will if he has that one. Because one will show him the error of his ways while the other will send him back to me without consequence, and he will look at me and we will both know who is really in charge. I know that if I make myself step into the hallway during passing periods I will see boys with their pants below their behinds and they will ignore me when I address them knowing I have no power at all. They will not understand that to dress that way in public is uncouth and ungentlemanly because they were not taught better at home, and I am not allowed to teach them that at school. I will see at least one girl dressed as if she is a lady of the night, but lady is relative when she was never taught to respect herself and believes that any attention is better than what she has.
I will put away lessons I worked to create for either canned lessons on computer websites that strip me of my own teaching style and robs me of the love I once had for my subject, for lessons that I worked countless hours to cater to every type of learner so they will be more successful in my class but will be grossly under prepared for college or the work force that will not care if they are auditory or visual or kinesthetic or right or left brained or orange or green or blue. They will fail or they will struggle because our drop out rate is more important to us than their futures.
We will not discuss what is right or wrong, what is moral or immoral, what is ethical or unethical because these concepts are all relative and we are in a diverse world in which the demand for political correctness and for not stepping on toes is more important than a child who is bullied or confused or lost. We are in a field in which the amount of education we have pays us a fraction of what others with the same or less education have, but we come back day after day after day because we know that if we see one light bulb come on or hear one thank you, we melt like a stray, starving animal finally taken in and given a scrap to eat. We are in a field in which the average teacher lasts four years and then leaves, not because of money but because every year, we are spread thinner and given more rules and less to work with. We are micromanaged on one level after another until our short work day and summers off are actually working into the night off the clock and all summer to rewrite the curriculum applying whatever the powers that be decide is the newest thing.
But we come back.
We have gone from a massive shortage in teachers to threats that if our students don’t test well, it is our jobs, so we teach the tests, and anyone who says we don’t is a liar. The tests demanded by government but not regulated become our bibles, our job security, and we KNOW it’s wrong but we are given ultimatums and we think that if we teach the test, we will be here for another day…for the light bulbs. Those few tiny light bulbs. We are told to do more with less, and when we do, we are even told that the celebrations of our successes are no longer allowed because they cost money. We buy supplies for our students out of our own pockets and sometimes bring them food and buy them alarm clocks and hold them when they cry and give them our phone numbers so they can call when things at home are too bad to stay, and we are told we cannot give them a ride in the rain and we cannot give them a place to sleep even when their parents throw them out, and we cannot give them advice or a flier for a church because we can be sued.
We try to call home to say, “Your son cannot or will not do the work,” but the numbers do not work, and when they do, it is somehow our fault. And when we say the children simply refuse to turn in assignments, we are told it is best to give them a 50 instead of a zero because if you give them a zero, they have no hope and will give up or cause trouble. Yet we have students who barely speak English who kill themselves and make a 50 because they do not understand and we are “asked” to put them on a level playing field. We give students who try what they earn and students who refuse to try “hope.”
We are made to fill out form after form on goals we did not set but were given to us that no one ever reads. We are made to write lesson plans that address this theory and these trends that go into a file and not read instead of spending the time planning and creating and knowing that a daily plan jotted on a Post-It Note or store receipt that has passion as an ingredient far outweighs a well-documented plan written for evaluators and administrators.
But, still…we come back.
And when a teacher can no longer take it. When he or she has nothing left to give and leaves, he or she sold out or he or she didn’t have what it took, or he or she just didn’t care enough. And here in my 16th year, I look at the rest of my teaching career and know I have another 16 to go before I can retire with a mediocre pension and I wonder how much more I have to give. I wonder how may more threats, rules, procedures and get-results-quick schemes I can endure in exchange for those light bulbs. I sit here with tears in my eyes at the thought of letting down just one child who wants to learn, just one student who has a parent who respects what I do, just one administrator with the spine to tell the powers that be that we will NOT subscribe to tricks but will, instead take our school back. We will discipline. We will demand excellence, and we will spend our time teaching material we need to teach with skills we were taught, instincts with which we were born, and the calling that had us walk into an empty classroom and marvel at the possibilities before us.
How much more do I have? I don’t really know. But I do know that I will be of no use to anyone, not to my family, not to my friends, not to myself and not to God if my own light is extinguished from the spirit that crumbles more every day.
For now, I will come back.
But when I know that a student will leave my classes and my influence thinking he or she is prepared for what’s out there and comes back with the question, “Why was I not taught what I needed to know to make it?” that will be the day that I will not return. Because that will be the day I will know I have become part of a system of failure, a ship I already feel sinking. And the reason will be because I will not have a suitable answer. I would only be able to say, “Because I did what I was told.” “Because that was the procedure.” “Because that was what got you to graduate.” “Because that was what helped the dropout rate.” “Because I didn’t stand up and say, ‘THIS IS NOT RIGHT!’” And these are answers I dread to give yet know are in my future.
I am a teacher. And I am so very tired. And I don’t know how much more I have to give.
But tomorrow…I will be back.