Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dear, Educators

Dear, Educators,

In my first few years of teaching, I felt so overwhelmed by the curriculum, the system, the "man" smashing that intimidating mallet onto the table of education. This paranoia absorbed my thoughts and invaded my teaching. Teaching became my life goal at the wee age of four, but I wasn't having fun almost twenty years later. This job sucked. My creativity hovered on the brink of extinction. Quitting seemed the most tempting option, but the fear of "what else could I possibly be good at?" lingered in the bubble above my head. I didn't understand why my students didn't want to learn (especially because I found learning so invigorating), why so many students were "lazy," and why I had waited this many years to stand in front of a classroom of teenagers.

I felt defeated.

I cannot recall what prompted the revelation, but a few realizations finally poked me in my over-tired face:

1. Kids are kids.

They might try to act like adults, and we might try to treat them like adults, and they might face adult-like problems, but they are kids at the end of the day. I needed to stop expecting adult behaviors out of people who weren't yet developmentally adults, and why would I want them to be? Childhood should be filled with moments of stupidity; otherwise, we might never learn to be smart. My goal changed: learn how to work with, not against, the "stupidities" of childhood, especially because adulthood stupidities are far less forgivable. Teach them balance. Lead by example. Have fun with them. Set rules but don't allow those rules to compromise reasonability and flexibility.

2. Additionally, kids are kids wherever you go.

I know that statement sounds ridiculously redundant and thereby obvious, but we teachers forget how true that statement is. I have worked at two schools in my current county. The first earned a reputation of being a "zoo" full of thugs, yet I left because of the system, not the students, whom I miss in all of their fiery spunk even five years later. Despite the low morale that pervaded for the two and a half years I spent at that school, it still feels like home to me. Not only did I love those students, I loved my colleagues. I felt so united with many of them in our commiserations. However, the lack of effective leadership left me feeling incompetent, overwhelmed, and miserable. Couple those feelings with the misery of my compatriots and I morphed into a person I no longer liked. It was time to move on. The one administrator who tried so desperately to make a difference cried over my departure, and I could not help feeling as if I were betraying the people I grew to love.

Currently, I work at a school populated by a wealthier group, and people judge them just as, if not more, harshly than the students at my previous school. People label these kids snobs, the "rich" kids, the kids who have it all. When I speak with colleagues at my previous school, they snidely remark, "Oh, you have no problems at that school! All of the kids are so smart!" The truth of the matter is that the real snobs are the people who judge these students without ever having taught them. Quite honestly, snobs and thugs (in the vernacular of those who spend more time judging than knowing) exist at both of these schools. The problems the students at both schools face and create might vary, but they ultimately want the same things: to be accepted, to be respected, to be guided, to be independent, and to be loved. (Sometimes, they are just not sure about how to do these same things with other people.) If we don't treat people like people, how can we expect them to act like people? If we don't teach people to be people how can we expect them to act like people?

Note: I can tell stories about the crazy or obnoxious things my students do with the best of them, but I think anyone who meets me can clearly see how much I love these kids in spite of, and sometimes because of, their antics.

3. Stop blaming kids when you want to blame the system.

Before I entered the profession, I was completely oblivious to the educational system's red tape. The paperwork. The too-involved-for-their-kid's-own-good parents. The strict IEPs. The "new" curriculum. The changing of books. The politics. The meetings. The meetings about meetings. Good grief. It's enough to make a person's internal calendar combust and leave brain splatter on the walls. Of course, just as I often unleash my hormone-induced fury on my husband once a month because he's the closest target, I've found myself trying to blame my students for what's really a system-induced wrath. On those days, I need to take a step back and breathe. My students are not the problem. They've never been the problem. (Okay, sometimes they are the problem. No, making a jump rope out of paper clips does not make me laugh nor will I applaud you for your efforts.) But, you know what I mean. I know you do. Sometimes, we teachers are so stressed by the ever-increasing list of responsibilities that it impacts both our teaching and our perception of the students we teach. Something, in a more relaxed state of ours, that would prompt us to reprimand and move on, just lingers for the rest of the day.

Other times, if we sit down and reflect, we consider their "I'm bored," "I'll never need this," and "Can we just watch a movie/have nap time/do nothing?" comments. We realize that, every now and then, they are right, and we hate it. We are so cornered by standards and stress that we just can't find an exciting way (or the time to create an exciting way) to teach semi-colons. We are not The Oatmeal. Of course, that puts us on the defensive (because we had already been feeling guilty), and we just want to scream at them, "SOMETIMES LIFE IS BORING! SOMETIMES, YOU ARE ANNOYING! I DON'T GO AROUND POINTING IT OUT EVERY DAY!" But, usually, we refrain from popping the bubbles above our heads. We don't want them to be right that they'll never need this information, or that we've never shown them how they might need it. We don't want to acknowledge that they are as stressed as we are, and they're saying what we're wanting. Yes, dangit, I want a nap, too, BUT THERE ARE NO NAPS IN REAL LIFE, JUST LIKE THERE IS NO CRYING IN BASEBALL. (Okay, there are naps in real life, but they rarely leave us refreshed. Instead, we feel a mixture of feverish and delusional after waking up.) Yes, I want to watch a movie or sit down and do absolutely nothing, but we do not always get what we want. Deal.

Why are we all stressed and on edge? We are desperately trying to juggle paper grading, lesson planning, meetings, and that nebulous thing people call a "real life." Husband? I married a man? Pets? I adopted two of them? Friends? I have those? A brother? Not a sister? Who am I? Many of us are perfectionists who realize the impossibility of tackling it all. Even those crazy people on Pinterest aren't balancing it as beautifully as they portray. Once I remind myself of this information, I let up on myself and my students. I hope you can do the same.

4. Teaching, like life, is as fun as you make it. 

Sure, I've had some manic, patience-trying classes. That crew of twenty-six boys and three girls was quite the rowdy bunch. (Words fail me when I try communicating the pride I felt at their graduation.) However, I had to teach myself something: no matter how bad it gets, laugh every day. Turn this madness into a funny story later. Reprimand the behavior and move on. Once I adopted this mantra, I committed it to practice. Eventually, it became second nature. Now, I no longer look for reasons to laugh. The reasons surround me. I find that my positive attitude as a teacher directly reflects upon my students. Yes, I have bad days. Yes, I have to have some heart-to-heart conversations with them about the behaviors I will not tolerate from them. Yes, I sometimes want to throw pencils at overly obnoxious teenagers. However, I let it go. We teachers cannot harbor ill will toward our students. It's not fair to them or to us. Reprimand them and move on. It reminds me of the Buddhist quote, "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned." If we resent our students for their misbehaviors instead of correcting them and simply moving on, it changes us as people and as teachers. That's what happened to me at the start of my career. I held on to too much and just could not let go. Once I started letting go, I started having fun.

5. My co-teacher, an incredible teacher, colleague, friend, and mother of four, always chants, "It's about the kids."

Whenever we have our moments of lunacy and frustration or we feel slighted by a comment from a student/colleague or an e-mail from a parent, she repeats that it's about the kids. She is right. With this profession, we have to leave our pride at the door. Though I have no personal experience, I imagine parenthood is much like that. When we want to take something personally, we can have our moment of frustration, but then we just have to remove ourselves from the equation. 

Teaching has taught me more than these five things, but these are the reminders I keep in mind in order to continue loving my career choice. I bet, like me, a lot of you were excited (despite some trepidation) about the coming school year. Now that about a month of the year is underway (for a lot of us), the stress is starting to pile.

With that stress in mind, my school year wishes for all of us is that we go easy on ourselves, have fun with and focus on our students, make the system our fill-in-the-blank-with-an-appropriate-word, and laugh every day.

Much educational love,
A Fellow, Sometimes Enlightened, Educator


  1. I teach elementary school and can relate to all of this. I said this week, "I cannot keep track of one more thing!" in the midst of all the paperwork, meetings, etc. I say amen to all you have said in this post.

  2. So true! Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to balance life with work, the reminder as to WHY I got into education, and to remember the bigger picture. :)

  3. Thanks for the reminder. #3 especially hit home and made me laugh! Have a great year!

  4. Very, very well written. I completely agree. It's taken me years of teaching to get to a place where I feel like I'm remembering and relying on these ideas. Working with students with special needs behaviorally, socially, and academically, I've learned to become very patient and that every day is a brand new day. When people have asked me how I can be so patient I tell them about how I used to feel bad for myself, saying "I wish I didn't have to be the most patient person in the world!" But one time I decided to NOT be patient all day was the most horrible, terrible day ever. Letting our own stuff affect the kids just creates a crazy, stressful, never-ending cycle. Luckily this was one of those "fake it til you make it" successes, because being patient with my students just comes naturally now (well, most of the time haha). This got long, look what you made me do! haha


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