Last week, teaching almost killed me. Again.
I was driving home from work, having stayed later than typical for a meeting and some organizing. The later drive meant hitting rush hour square in the face, meant a doubling of my drive home.
I dozed off driving home, staring at the family stickers of the car in front of me, wondering if I loved or hate them more for including their dogs, not-quite swerving this ton-heavy metal box with a meaty middle going death-probable speeds before I shook myself awake.
I drove the last 10 minutes or so fighting my eyes open, promising myself I would let them close as soon as I parked.
Teaching makes me so tired.
Teaching is tough on teachers. I know, everyone’s job is tough on everyone. I don’t necessarily believe that teaching is harder than the work anyone else does, but it is differently harder than a lot of them.
It’s hard on my friendships. You know those things at water parks? The big bucket type thing that slowly fills with water and then dumps it all out at once? That’s what my free time is like. I disappear for months at a time, and then scratch out time to connect, do all the catching up I can and say so super earnestly that it cannot be so long until the next time. During the summer I have a whole bunch of time, but suddenly almost no one is around.
There are friends who are only really friends when they need a letter of recommendation, or when they need to know about publishing or someone to come speak at their thing, or when they need someone to listen to the story about the racist at work and then tell them they are doing a good job not liking that person.
There is all the resistance this year, there are the nasty parent emails and student eyerolls, and the colleagues smack-talking me and my work over lunch or to the students in their classroom or to the parents they live near, who then send me nasty parent emails. More than my other 12 years combined, and it’s hard, especially when, really, I am just trying my hardest to do this hard thing well.
There are all of those things, plus the work all day of 150 kids who you love even when you don’t always like them, who need your patience and energy, who are consistently the reason for loving this job, even when it almost kills you.
One of Those Teachers
I recently traveled half across the country to meet one of those teachers. The woman I met teaches literacy in a district that long ignored it, has transformed her school’s approach by sharing her own successes and innovations. She is invited to regional and national gatherings, is lauded for her work, her passion, her leadership. I visited her to learn how she did all these things, how she remained successful and impactful in and out of her classroom so consistently, but now I won’t tell you who she is.
“I know in my heart that I am here to teach,” she told me over lunch on my first day with her, “but I also know I can’t do it anymore.”
I won’t tell you who she is because she doesn’t want you to know, doesn’t want to go on record as one of those teachers who became one of those other kind, the kind who quit, the kind who walk away. She’s pretty sure she’ll come back, pretty sure she’ll teach most of her life, so long as she stops for now.
She is tired.
She is tired of the heavy lifting. Of working in a school in a district that seems to not worry about her bad principal, even when they lose nearly half their teachers every year. She is tired from leading her department, a curriculum team, developing and teaching a new elective, doing her best to push her colleagues to undo some of their more damaging behaviors, and feeling, always, like she’s not doing enough quick enough for the kids in her room every day.
She’s tired, and my god do I get this, did years of this before now, of getting no support from administrators who are more than willing to claim victory for her successes. She’s sure that if she stays for one more year, she’ll be done teaching forever, so she’s leaving. Off to do other things where she can, off to take a breath so she can hopefully come back.
When We Walk Away
When we walk away, it is for so many reasons.
There’s not always a good way up, and not always much to do sliding over.
When we walk away, it is for so many reasons. If you’re not interested in administration, in consulting, or in multi-level-marketing scams, which seem to be the three most popular choices, then we often aren’t leaving to something, we are leaving from.
So, sure, there are days I think about what it would be like to wake up after sunrise, to write increasingly bizarre short stories that no one will read (my in-laws have this cabin up north with this one room fish-house thing that no one uses anymore that looks out over the lake that plays a large part in just about every post-teaching-writer fantasy I have). I think about long train rides and bathroom breaks, and maybe about having a job that people don’t shout about online all the time.
Some days I think about how our work seems harder, and not in a “kids these days” or “parents these days” sort of way, because I generally and genuinely love kids and parents these days. I think our work seems harder because our world has gotten harder. We’ve gotten nastier and increasingly polarized and awful things are happening so often it’s gotten normal. It’s not an easy time to teach.
Why We Stay
I’ve been less good at teaching lately. I’ve been too tired. I’ve been too cranky. The days that I am the worst at my job are the days I feel most like leaving. They are the days that I am too busy or too frustrated or too worn-all-the-fuck-the-way-down to reflect and remember why I’m inspired to do this work, to remember that every day I have 50 minutes with each group of kids that can be transformative, that can give them tools they will need to make this place better.
The world kinda sucks right now, and so the world needs us to keep teaching. The world needs teachers who are willing to teach their asses off, willing to teach and struggle and fight for schools that deserve our kids.
I know, somewhere deep in me, that when I leave the classroom it will almost surely be for something that is less important. I know I need to stick with it for as long as I can.
I know, even when I forget, that the things that make the work hard and important in a good way far outweigh the things that make it hard and exhausting in a bad way.
When we stay, we stay for those important reasons, and because it’s still a job that very often feels like a privilege, and very often feels like one of the best things you can spend your life doing.
We get to be there to tell someone on the exact right day that we know they can be better, on a different right day to tell them that they are already enough.
We get to be there on days when the world’s adults seem impossibly awful, young people doing hopeful and beautiful things.
We get to be there to get those other emails, the ones we tuck away for when we need to remember. Emails like the one I just got, just now, that says
“I have to thank you. I’m a white mom to a black son. That’s terrifying to me for lots of reasons. I didn’t know how to get him curious about his identity and struggled with how to approach him and the conversation—he’s a quiet guy at home. Can you believe that? I think through your class, he’s become more curious and proud of who he is. He asks questions, he brings it up independently, and even asks “was that guy just being racist?!” I laugh a little because we’ve sheltered him and protected him as long as we could. He recently asked to learn Amharic, he’s going to meet his birth family in Ethiopia. I know he’s nervous (I am!) but I have to credit his growing curiosity about himself to you and the other awesome teachers there.”
I was so tired before. So tired five minutes before. I’ve found my energy again, right where I left it, in the beauty and the power of this thing I get to do every day.