If you’ve been listening to teachers for the past year or so, either the teachers in your life or the ones on TikTok or Twitter or in the letters to the editor section of your local paper, you know that things have been difficult.
Teaching has always been a difficult job, alternately scorned and appreciated depending on the climate of the times, but for many of us in the profession the pandemic was simply too much. Social media was full of videos from teachers who had had enough. Many of us were frustrated by administrators who weren’t always supportive, students who weren’t always prepared, and caregivers who weren’t always understanding. With attacks coming from all sides, many of us made difficult choices.
Last year there were tearful videos of teachers explaining why they couldn’t continue, always with the same phrase: “I didn’t sign up for this.” This fall, many who didn’t leave the job then have chosen to step back in another way — “quiet quitting” — by saying no to all the extra things teachers have traditionally done for free, like sponsoring clubs during lunch, supervising events in the evening, or writing college recommendation letters over the weekend.
How have we gotten here?
In the early days of the pandemic there was a brief moment in the sun when teachers were revered. As families everywhere guided their children through the jungles of distance learning, we teachers were Indiana Jones without the whip; Lara Croft without her pistols.
We were heroes, but only for a minute. It wasn’t long before parents grew weary of the game and needed their children out of the house, Covid be damned. When teachers resisted, suddenly we were soft and lazy again. We were reminded that we were getting paid for sitting at home, as if that were all we had been doing. Experts worried about the mental health of our students and told us that we were responsible for the decline, not the virus that had shut down the entire country.
It was humbling and disappointing, but it was a reminder of what many of us have always known. Teachers are not firefighters or doctors or rocket scientists. We are mail carriers. We are street sweepers. We are bus drivers. Essential, but so ubiquitous that we are taken for granted.
While this was going on, George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota and the ripples eventually washed up on the shores of every classroom in America. As a nation struggled to come to grips with the dark reality facing people of color in the land of the free, frightened parents stormed school board meetings and told fairy tales with teachers cast as the villains. According to the stories, we were indoctrinating our students into an imagined far left agenda and telling them that if they were white, they were part of the problem.
These fears led to book banning and attempts to monitor what was happening on school campuses. There were bills in various state assemblies calling for cameras in classrooms, demanding that teachers post all lesson plans on line, and threatening hefty fines for teaching critical race theory. (In case you’re wondering, none of us teach critical race theory.) There were secret and nefarious things happening in our schools, parents were sure of it.
Teachers were villains, and we were replaceable (at least in Florida), so many of us left.
Let me tell you why I haven’t.
This week I’ll begin my thirty-second year of teaching, and if you don’t count my time as a paperboy or an ice cream scooper or a cafeteria worker, it’s the only job I’ve ever known.
On Wednesday I’ll welcome 175 seventh and eighth graders into my room, and even though only some of them will be familiar faces, there are a few things that the previous three decades have taught me about all of them.
For the next nine months there will be several ups and downs, good days and bad. Some of my students will roll their eyes when I ask them to pay attention, but others will smile and say “good morning” each time they enter the room. Some will produce beautiful essays while others will use just one period per paragraph. Some will wonder aloud why they have to study language arts, but others will ask me every week for another book to borrow. Some classes will be challenging, but others will begin to feel like a family.
As much as I will love all of this, as much as I look forward to each of the next 180 school days, the advantage I have over younger teachers is that I already know what happens next. When things get difficult, I’ll be able to take solace in my knowledge of what the future holds for my students.
Many of this year’s students, actually most of them, will leave my life forever when they walk out of my classroom next June. I will send them on their way with my usual farewell, reminding them that I will always be their teacher and ensuring them that even if they never find their way back to Room 903, a part of them will always remain, just as a part of me will go with them.
Conservatively, I’d guess that I’ve taught three to four thousand students in my career, and I’m confident that most of them have positive memories from their time in my classroom. I know this because they send me postcards to update me on their lives, they find me on Facebook, they coach with me, they meet me for coffee when they’re in town. Some are old enough now that they blend in with the parents if they visit during Back to School Night; some of them are the parents at Back to School Night. A few have even become teachers.
I’m lucky to have been doing this long enough to know what happens on the other end. To know that the boy who scowls in the corner after I’ve moved his seat might one day meet me for breakfast on a Saturday morning and thank me for believing in him.
I’ve always been guided by the Jackie Robinson quote, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” a reminder that although not all of us will have the opportunity to change the world the way he did, we each have an obligation to change our corner of the world.
For thirty-one years, my classroom has allowed me to do that, and the gift that my students give me each year is the opportunity to impact their lives, a gift I’ve never taken lightly. It carried me through the spring and fall of 2020, allowing me to frame distance learning as an exciting challenge rather than a reason to stop teaching. Could I figure out a way to connect with my students through a screen the same way I always had when they were sitting in front of me?
My students drove me to dive into equity work on our campus while so many schools and districts were grappling with the systemic issues plaguing education. If I didn’t stand up for my students, whether their skin was brown like mine or not, who would?
They pushed me this summer as I sought out new ways to evaluate students and looked for different methods of writing instruction instead of running my classroom the same way I always have.
When someone asks how much longer I plan to teach, this gift from my students is the reason that my answer is always the same: “I don’t know.” I can’t yet imagine a life without the daily inspiration my students provide. I can’t yet imagine the end of this journey.
Finally, my students past and present continue to drive me to reach the goal I share with them and their families each year. When they look back years from now and think of their time in my room, I want them to remember me as the best teacher they’ve ever had. When that goal no longer seems possible, that’s when I’ll know the journey has ended.