#teachlikeme, or A Love Letter

May 3, 2016

I asked my partner this evening what he thought excited me most about teaching …

When is it that I come home from work all, you know, jumping up and down?”
Well I don’t know. Maybe, when a kid gets it? By which I mean, I guess, the teaching bit…”

I remember my first day in the classroom. I was nineteen, teaching someone else’s curriculum, explaining an assignment I hadn’t designed. But there was a question from a goofy 8th grader and so I walked over to his desk and we talked and I altered the task slightly and reexplained it because it turned out he’d raised a valid point, and then he got excited and bent over his work while I moved back to the front of the classroom.

I think that was the moment I fell in love.

It wasn’t about books.
It wasn’t about writing.
It wasn’t about words.

It was about that moment. In that moment we learned.

It was silly—I couldn’t tell you the book or the task to save my life. But the feeling of explaining something, being questioned, then listening (and listening and listening) and changing the way I was teaching until I became comprehensible was a feeling I wanted again. And even deeper, the effect of that moment is burned in my memory: I saw the body language of a child completely absorbed in the work of words, scratching away at the paper before him.

I happened upon that moment that day, but it turns out it’s tough to get there, most of the time.

It takes honesty and consistency to build trust with my students. It takes a fair and firm hand to create a safe classroom environment. It takes insight to see beyond the stony glare of an angry teen. It takes creativity to plan units that engage my students enough to keep them in their seats. It takes perseverance do all my students the justice of preparing them for their exams (or other goals). It takes perspective to not become overwhelmed by the stacks of paperwork that surround the teaching profession.

It’s hard. Harder than almost anything else I’ve ever done.

Sometimes I think teaching is simply a never ending list of problems to be solved (on some days it’s a downright Whack-A-Mole). But this is why I love it. I’m never going to arrive. I’m always going to be a student, inside. Trying to figure out a better way to explain that technique, a more effective way to communicate what makes writing clear, a gentler question to draw the tentative student into the text. Learning from the people in front of me how to teach them better, to teach them the way they deserve to be taught, with grace and with excellence.

I’m not sure that this love letter is going to swell the ranks of any teacher preparation programs. And of course, I could rattle off the list of reasons not to sign up. But we all know them already—the hours, the lack of societal support, the disillusioning systems, apathetic and/or rowdy teens, and on. Add to that the emotional burden of hurting students and the self-doubt of an imperfect teacher and it doesn’t partiularly sound like a recipe for a fulfilled life.

And yes, I get tired. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I take shortcuts. Sometimes I teach crappy lessons. Sometimes I completely lose the plot. Like any grand romance, the daily grind takes a toll on my affection.

But I’m in love. I dread Monday morning until the first not-always-cheery face greets me in period 1. Then I remember why I’m here. I remember why I do this crazy job.

It’s because of you. And you. And you. And because some afternoon I’ll wade through the lesson plans and student reports on my desk and find that essay you redrafted and I’ll realize that you learned and I learned and we’re both better people for it.


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