Diapers and Dragons

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sweeter Words...

Sometimes it hardly seems worth it, being a teacher. On the surface, it looks great. Hey, work six hours a day, get all the holidays off, and never undertake hard manual labor! Right?


'Lest I go into a rant starting with the words "Why don't YOU take my classes for a day and grade all the homework and go to all the meetings and plan all the lessons and, oh yeah, pay for all the continuing education courses the law/certification requires..." and continuing on in that vein for about three pages, let me move on.

As much as I cannot imagine doing anything else as a career, I do not always Feel It. There are days, weeks, sometimes (when it really gets bad) months when I find myself questioning my choice. (Not that I had a whole lot of options with an English Lit degree, mind you, but that's beside the point. Flashback to me, an overly dramatic eighteen-year-old, draped across my bed moaning to ComputerBoyfriend that my future was bleak and what the hell was I going to do with my life? He was the one who suggested I check out the Education courses. Bless him. I never looked back.) I went into this career because I wanted to Give Back and Be Useful To Society. You know, shape the minds of youth and our future and all that. Plus I REALLY love books. What I didn't anticipate was all the dreck that comes along with the mind-shaping. The politics, the benchmarks, the standardized testing, the administrative wrangling, the minds that really don't want to be shaped...

And so there are times when my fire is burning at a low, low level and I fear that just a sprinkling of discouragement might put it out. I went through two years of this a little while back, a time when all the bitterness and cynicism that being an educator can produce was surging through me in almost complete control. I was not a good teacher during those years. It doesn't surprise me that very few students who had me in those years keep in touch or viewed me as one of their best teachers, because there wasn't a lot to like. I was negative, I scowled, I criticized without the leavening of encouragement. I did little to inspire them or lift them up towards greater heights. I came very close to abandoning it all, because there seemed to be little point in even continuing.

And then I took a good, long look at myself during one summer, both as a teacher and a person, and realized that I was letting my anger at the system and the students and the administrators and the parents and all the other members of the big Them twist and sour inside me. This wasn't righteous anger, this was bitter, destructive anger that was leading toward my destruction. It was affecting my career, it was affecting my marriage, and it was affecting my parenting of a very young DramaBoy (flying solo back then, though not for long). So I resolved then and there that the next year would be different. I would allow myself to get angry--because it would be unrealistic otherwise--but I would not allow myself to become bitter or cynical.

And it worked. I rediscovered my love for teaching, my sense of humor, and my connection with my students and coworkers. It was a good year. And it's been good, for the most part, since.

But there are times when I feel flat, and uninspired, and as though I'm creeping back towards a low place. This last week was one such time. I was even teaching a book I'm passionate about, and when I saw my students' eyes glazed over, I realized that none of my passion was coming through. Then there was a series of days of testing, and that lowered my sense of impact even further. I was not being an effective teacher.

Then as I was walking out the door yesterday, a student from one of my sophomore honors classes last year greeted me. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked, "Do you remember that ten-page paper you made us write last year?"

"Yes," I replied with trepidation. (How could I forget? The days on end of moaning and complaining and gnashing of teeth. The glares of hatred. The stares of frank disbelief when I informed them that they could hate me now, but they would thank me later. Please, thank me later.)

"So I had to write another one this year. And I found myself on page six without even trying. And it's all because of you."

Cue beam of light from Heaven and angels singing.

And then, as if that wasn't enough already and tears weren't already forming in my eyes, he turned to the other students lounging nearby, held his arms out in presentation, and said:

"Behold, the World's Best English Teacher!"

It's times like these that make it worth it all. The "thank you" from a student, present or past, whether it be in person or e-mail. The gratitude from a parent for making a difference in a child's life. The gift from a student at Christmas or Mother's Day. The hug in the halls, the notes on the dry-erase board on the door, the smiles. They don't come every day, and sometimes they don't come often, but when they do, they make all the difference.

When is the last time you thanked someone who made a difference in your life?

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