“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” This paradox beginning A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens sums up my teaching experience precisely. As we enter another national Teacher Appreciation Week, I found myself explaining the merits and drawbacks of teaching to my seniors, who are about to graduate high school:
I teach because I get to make a difference in my students’ lives (for better, I hope, not worse). I don’t teach because of the paycheck, certainly. I don’t teach because of the delight of grading essays or dealing with unruly children or the faculty and parent meetings (or that saying “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”).
I teach because I love it.
I find myself thinking about teaching all the time, always considering how I can do things better, what object lesson or method might make the lesson more accessible. New tools, new approaches, new books excite me and renew my love for both learning and teaching. As a teacher, I am what Miracle Grow is to plants. Something about the way I teach, or the way I think, or the way I give feedback, or the way I love, or the way I interact with my students reaches them and makes a difference.
I get frustrated sometimes because students linger around my desk and congregate in my classroom–even though the clock says class is over or school is over. They invade my personal space and feel the freedom to take from my desk what they need for the moment–without asking. They enter my classroom during lunch and ask me questions when I am awkwardly trying to consume a salad while wading through a pile of papers. And they share their struggles and frustrations and joys. I forget my need for personal space and, instead, feel honored to be included in theirs.
And so I pour myself into teaching them and see results. They come back to me after graduation and tell me stories about how what I taught helped them in college, in life. They find me on Facebook and become my friend (though they still address me as Mrs. Dagen). They return to the school for homecoming or school plays, and they tell me how much they miss me.
Who wouldn’t love this job?
I take the summers off to hibernate–more like a caterpillar in a cocoon than a bear. I transform myself (and my home) in the summer, doing those chores and repairs and makeovers that I notice but don’t take the time to do during the school year. I read and I contemplate and I learn how others teach–and I make my New School Year’s resolutions. Then I plan for my changes and renew my mind, my energy, my enthusiasm, knowing I will pour it all out again once the school doors open and new students enter my room.
But teaching is also the worst job on the planet. It ruins you for anything else. After you have poured yourself out in teaching, how can any other job seem significant?
The money is terrible, the hours are ridiculous–because when I am not actually in the classroom, I am still teaching. The job never ends. It consumes my personal time. My family and house and even my body suffer. To do it well, I do it always. I think about it all the time; what can I do better? How can I help that student understand? How can I motivate another? I labor away, grading one stack of papers only to distribute them and collect another stack and another. The only way to end this paper trail is to stop teaching.
And teaching makes me feel like a failure. I see all the information I failed to teach or the ways I could have taught more effectively. I see the wasted minutes, the squandered periods, the rabbit trails that detracted from the main message. And then I grade myself by my students’ grades. If they do well, then I’ve done well. If they don’t do well, then I am at fault; I either did not teach or did not motivate them.
Teaching is simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times. It energizes me and applauds my success and also enervates me and condemns my failures.
My heart’s desire has been to write a book that will change the world. So far, teaching has superceded my ability to do that. But maybe, through teaching, I’ve accomplished it a different way. Maybe my writing implement has been teaching; my paper, my students’ lives.
And maybe they will change the world.