a few reflective thoughts on what that means to me today, now that i have returned to the classroom, at least through the end of the year
Being a teacher mean
- I can never stop learning. My learning begins with learning about my students: what they already know, what they know how to do, what they can learn to, what their hopes and dreams and fears and doubts are . . . .
- my time is not my own. The job is not defined by the time I spend in my classroom with my students, which begins at 8:05 and ends at 3 PM. It is not defined by my average day at school, which runs from 7 to 4. It is not even defined by the time I know I will spend planning and correcting papers. My mind continues to think about my students, about how to reach them, about what I could have done better, sometimes even when I am trying to fall asleep.
- I cannot merely close my door and teach. The school is required to document, which means I am as well. For the first time in my life I have to submit detailed lesson plans two weeks ahead, even though reality says planning in detail more than a day or two ignores what it is I am going to learn in previous lessons, in correcting the work that is completed. Given what many see as my ability to articulate to a general audience the reality of the classroom, I have a further obligation to engage in attempting to influence educational policy.
- I must work with others on behalf of my students. That includes the school as a whole. It certainly at a middle school level, where students travel from teacher to teacher as cohorts the other teachers on my team. Wherever possible it must include the adults who bear responsibility outside of school for the students entrusted to our care - these may be parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, foster parents.
But there is more.
Being a teacher should mean one's first responsibility is the well-being of the children entrusted to my care. It matters far less that a student display expertise in the assigned subject of my curriculum, which this year is world history up to/through the Renaissance than ensuring my students are eating, that they can get to school safely, that they learn how to resolve conflicts without violence (verbal or physical).
It means most of all that I am teaching students, persons, each absolutely unique, and no matter how much the District of Columbia may emphasize test scores, even for a school with the population we serve - many of our students have failed repeatedly in other settings - we must focus on each student as an individual.
I came to school on the Monday after Sandy Hook, even though I had been sick that entire weekend.
I had several obligations to my students. On the Tuesday of that week, they were going to sit for a retest on language arts on testing material from the District. As the social studies teacher I shared responsibility with the English teacher, and so long as I could drag myself to school and not risk infecting my students, I had to be there for that. That was my academic obligation to them.
I had a greater obligation. After Sandy Hook they needed to hear from us that we would keep them safe. As the only male teacher our 7th graders have, I was the one who had to explain that like the teachers in Connecticut we would place ourselves between them and any threat to them. Because there is a slope down to the windows in my classroom, I explained to them how they would be sitting on the floor under those windows so that no one from the outside could see them.
Most of all, even though the female teachers regularly hug them, they needed to hear from me that we loved them all, which is why we were there in that school teaching them.
"A teacher affects eternity he can never tell, where his influence stops." Those words of Henry Adams are never far from my mind. I know that the influence can be positive, for I have had students reach out to me and thank me years after they have left my classroom. I am also painfully aware that my insensitivity or lack of affirmation has the potential to permanently damage the young persons entrusted to me. That is one reason I think so hard and so long about what has happened in my classroom.
My good friend John Merrow has coined a phrase: he says that ADD should stand for Affection Deficit Disorder - that too many of our young people lack the affirmation for themselves as persons so essential for human growth and development. I am proud of our school that we take seriously affirming our young people. Sometimes, like a parent, that requires of us that we set and enforce strict limits. Being a teacher means our care for others outweighs any emotional need we may have for affirmation back from them.
Being a teacher is more than a job. It is more than a career.
Being a teacher is a sacred and demanding obligation.
It is also as important as anything I can ever imagine doing.