It’s the end of the school year and my sophomore students are completing their class finals, wishing me a good summer, and walking out the door for another vacation. My senior students are saying their teary-eyed final goodbyes. Whatever bumps in the road we had during our teacher-student relationship melt away into a new understanding that neither party can fully understand. Maybe it’s mutual appreciation? Maybe they feel a part of their childhood dying? Maybe, in the end, they don’t really want to leave, fearing a future not predestined by public education?
With the end of this school year, it being my fifth, I shed my greenhorn status and become an “experienced” high school educator. I go into my sixth year with a Masters in Teaching under my belt, and possibly I’ll inherit a student teacher or someone to mentor next year as they experience their first year as a high school classroom teacher — passing along what I was taught five years ago.
My fifth year was a rough one. Not only was I teaching full-time, but I also attended grad school as well — compacting the degree into four semesters. I bitched to friends; complained to whatever unfortunate bastard asked me how I was doing. I humbly bow to all of those who stood by my side and listened to me without judgment, especially my wife, whose faith in me knows no bounds.
I had sleepless nights, weekends that were more stressful than my weekdays, and a never-ending “to do list” nagging and tearing apart every social minute I spent away from my role as a teacher or as a student.
I had rough encounters with parents — vitriol-fueled people taking fifteen to eighteen years of parental frustration and confusion out on me over a B that should have been an A or an assignment that was “designed to make my son/daughter fail.” I was called a “pseudo-intellectual” once and also that, “the parents are bringing pitchforks and torches to the school” against me (never happened by the way). These are all actual parent quotes from the year.
I had students explode at me in the classroom, calling me every name in the book. I had a kid say things to me that, if he were an adult and I was in a certain frame of mind, would result in a serious scrap. I have had bosses and colleagues throw me under the bus. I have had friends and also my wife’s friends ask me to defend an education system that I know is fundamentally flawed. All the standardized exam scores in the world are higher than America’s; our students can’t meet international standards. Our teachers are ineffective.
Teachers don’t know how to do their jobs.
While most students charge out the door, not giving two shits about the teacher left behind, some stick around for a little while. One student wrote me a letter this year. In it she poured out her soul, the loss of her father earlier in the year tore her apart and she was begging me for help. I had one student, a weepy-eyed 6’0″ 225 lbs. kid, confide in me that he was terrified of a life without football because “it’s the only thing I can do well.” One student, who I had a rocky relationship with when we met, told me that I was her “lighthouse” this year, and she came to view my classroom like “going to church.” On her last day of class, one student just hugged me. She dug her head into my chest for a few extra seconds, mumbled a shaky “thank you,” and walked out my door without making eye-contact.
A male student, a graduating senior who barely made it, came to me this morning, shook my hand and said, “You showed me that I can be smart. I’ll never forget that.” He’s on his way to a two-year college, the first of his family to continue his education beyond high school.
They are correct, teachers don’t know what they are doing because there is no correct way to do what we do. There’s no proper standardized grading system for teachers or our students, because we teach and they learn more than what a standardized test can assess. A good teacher develops human beings — we set high-expectations, provide safety within rigor, we foster a brief moment in the time span of lives where ideas are discussed, laughter and tears are shared — where humanity serves its purpose. A teacher teaches more than content. We do this unknowingly; it happens because we are students as much as we are teachers.
And filling the proper circle A, B, C, or D does not assess any of that.
Today, my classroom empties and my students leave. I’ll clean it, organize it, make it anew. Because I have 135 other students coming my way in two months — and I have to be ready.
This is the greatest job that has ever existed.