Why I Am Still a Teacher, Despite Everything

Teaching has become a much harder thing to do in the last decade. The fact that there is such a major shortage of teachers comes as no surprise to anyone who teaches in a public school. Granted, some of the issues that have caused teachers so much stress are coming from within the walls of our schools, but so many of the problems are almost totally outside our realm of control. That’s what makes it so tough; there’s a genuine feeling of helplessness attached to the stress so many teachers suffer from.

The challenges that come with our students and their families vary greatly from one school district to another, but many of us are dealing with high percentages of students who are greatly troubled. These kids, many of whom are carrying around heavy burdens of trauma, come to us from situations we can’t really begin to imagine. Some of these kids demand so much of their teachers’ time, energy, patience, and empathy, that it takes a great toll. It is as if all of the grace we have to offer is drained from us each day until, by the end of the week, we’ve got nothing left to give. That’s not good for our own families back home. But that’s not the worst part. Many of us can find a way to build relationships with those kids to the point where we can make progress. When that happens, it feels good and things can get better. What never seems to get better is the way our government treats us–particularly those of us who teach in such challenging schools.

When you work so hard just to find a way to coexist with kids who are so damaged by trauma that their lives are almost like a war zone, it absolutely wears on you. You celebrate minor victories–like actually getting Josh to turn in an assignment, helping Marcus raise his grade from a 22% all the way up to a 48% and seeing him beam with pride, marking Cynthia present for two days in a row for the first time all year–and you hope against hope that you can build on that momentum–sometimes you can, sometimes you have to start all over again, and again, and again. Meanwhile, your school continues to be labeled as “failing” despite the minor miracles it works on a daily basis. Not only does that label come with a painful stigma that casts dark shadows of shame across the climate of your building, it also means that you get less funding and many teachers won’t get a raise again this year, just like last year, and the year before, and the year before. Try as you might, you can’t see any hope of things getting better in the future. When you think about it, it’s a miracle that more teachers haven’t left than already have.

I’ll be quite honest with you, I came close to quitting last year–damn close. It was a very rough year. I’ve written about that process before. For now, suffice to say that I’ve gotten some medical help and have worked hard on changing my perspective so that things have gotten better for me from a mental and emotional standpoint. Much better, actually. Part of my process was altering my expectations and my definition of what I do. I began to describe myself to be as much a missionary as an educator. That helped a lot. It took some of the focus off of being defined by test scores and school letter grades and put it more on the fact that our kids need positive relationships with adults in their lives. When I look at myself as a missionary, I take it far less personally when some of my students refuse to participate on a history lesson like I want them to. But maybe I can show them that not all adults will give up on them. Maybe I can help teach empathy, tolerance, and respect by modeling it for them. Maybe I can make them feel safe and valued enough to open up and share what’s on their minds. Maybe I can get them to listen to and value others enough to hear what they have to say. And maybe, just maybe, if I can get them to that point, I can get them to start caring a little bit about history.

I could go out and look for an easier school to teach in, but I’ve come to understand that I might just be right where I’m needed the most. Our current elected officials who are supposed to represent me will never understand that, I’m afraid. I almost lost sight of it myself last year in that very dark time I had to work so hard to get through. Once I did, I decided I’m going to ride out the last 6 or 7 years I have before retirement in my role as teacher/missionary and finish in the same building where I started almost 20 years ago.

I’ll leave you today with the message I give to my students on the first day of school each year. It pretty much sums up why I still choose to do what I do. I may not reach them all, but I hear back from enough of my former students to know that I have helped them become better, more informed citizens and that, to me, is far more important than anything the government thinks I have or have not accomplished. Here is a summation of my first day of the school year speech. It’s why I’m still a teacher, despite everything.

“Welcome to the most important class you have. Don’t tell your other teachers I just said that, let’s make it our little secret. I say this is your most important class because I believe it. You are the first generation ever to be born into a world with social media. You are exposed daily to more information than many of the people born in different times ever saw in their lifetimes. Here’s the thing about that information; a whole bunch of it is garbage and almost all of it is biased propaganda. That’s why this class is so important to you; we are going to learn how to be good and informed citizens, we are going to learn to look at issues and events from multiple perspectives, and most importantly, we are going to learn how to have empathy for others. Our nation is running low on empathy right now. Some of the adults in your world have made a bit of a mess of things and it is my job to equip you to go out and make your world a better place. The future of this country is more yours than mine and you should have a lot of input into what kind of nation you’ll be living in. Knowing how we got here is a very important part of determining where you’ll go from here.

Some adults out there right now would be uncomfortable with some of the things I’m going to teach you this year. Some might even accuse me of indoctrinating you with “revisionist history.” To them I would say this; I’m not revising history, I’m teaching more of it to counteract the damage done through the many decades when the American story was whitewashed and polished to champion only one side of the story. I am as interested in the perspectives of Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, women, and the marginalized of American history as I am with the men on Mount Rushmore. I want you to be, too. We are going to tell the whole story—the stories of the “winners” and the “losers”—the conquerors and the conquered—the master and slave—and in the process, we’ll get closer to the accurate story of America than I ever did when I was your age. After all, the stories that those “other” groups have to tell are a direct link to many of the most probematic issues we still face today. 

I want you to feel connected to history and understand that it is not just the story of people who lived a long time ago, it’s our story. 

History is a river flowing throughout all of time. Everyone who was ever born, living now, and the yet unborn are all in the same river. We all just enter the stream at different points along its path. We are in the same stream as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Tecumseh, and Abraham Lincoln. They are just upstream from us. And like any river, what happens in the waters upstream has consequences downstream. If there is a chemical spill in the river upstream from you, that pollution will be carried far downstream and affect the rest of it. This is the way history works, too. The moment you truly come to understand that, history will mean a lot more to you. 

That’s why this is the most important class you have. The reason people in this world don’t get along is often because they don’t understand each other’s history very well. They are lacking empathy. It’s hard to hate someone if you can empathize with them. In this class, we will try to get to know, understand, and empathize with all the different perspectives of the people we will be talking about. Then it’s your job to form your own opinions about the right, the wrong, and the somewhere in between of history. I will never tell you what to think, but I will sure give you a lot to think about. 

History is our story and you are big part of it. You’ll be helping to write the next part of history. It’s my job to get you prepared for that.” 

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