First Years and Appreciation: We Are Not Falling Apart

‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.” -Audre Lorde

It’s a damp, muggy, beautiful July morning in Charleston. I am doing yoga beneath the ancient oak tree that sits by my apartment. From my twisted angle, the sun flickers a honeyed-yellow light between the pieces of Spanish moss. I inhale slowly and close my eyes, forgetting the last of the moving boxes I have to pack. Imagining myself at the front of a high school classroom–finally achieving my purpose: making a difference. I love my college kids, and I am still so passionate about teaching them, but the mentality of the ivory tower drained my idealism within my teaching philosophy.Fast forward. It’s 6:45 a.m. and I am getting ready to head to school. Coffee and oatmeal in toe because I never have time to eat at home in the mornings anymore. A sharp pain in my lower back because I can’t remember the last time I did physical therapy or yoga.

My mind, ignoring the calmness of the sunrise and the dew it once so embraced with gratitude, is dwelling on the unrelenting task list ahead for the day. The lessons. The grades. The meetings. The emails. The parents. The students.

The students.

And it’s that last thought that pushes me onward.

It’s 1:00 a.m., that same morning. I am staring vacuously at a cursor on a blank word document, a metronome waiting for thought–a paper for my online special education course. I couldn’t finish earlier because I had to grade, and plan, and fill out paperwork for an observation. And maybe eat and indulge in self-care. I also thought about ordering a new driver’s license since my wallet was stolen over the weekend; but, I didn’t have much time to dwell on that. Personal matters pushed aside. My identity and idiosyncrasies lacking a space both in time and in my head.

You have a Master’s degree and are highly qualified in your field? Have a few years of teaching and curriculum design under your belt?  You still need to take these courses, pay these fees, go to this training, fill out these plans, and watch these videos. Answer these questions and spend your Saturdays inside of an almost windowless room. Spend your precious weeknights doing homework instead of planning for your classes brimming with 170 hungry minds.

Exploit the other aspects of your life that you once loved.

Abuse the attributes of a career that you love.

Never mind the fact that stepping in front of a classroom is the best way to learn. That nothing can prepare you for the blunt force of teaching in the public education system except for actually doing it. Nothing can teach you to balance teaching, attending meetings (504, PLC, Parent, Faculty), preparing curriculum, giving feedback, grading, emailing, data collecting, hand-holding (and then letting go), writing recommendations, giving detentions, disciplining, filling out paper work, inspiring, pushing, motivating (attempting to)–all within a system that offers an ineffable lack of appreciation or support.

This is the first time in my career that I feel as though I am not being treated as a professional within the system of which I work. “Teachers lack a voice,” friends would tell me. “Don’t do it.”  And, as always, my optimistic brain cried hyperbole.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with professional development. It is vital, especially in a field that is ceaselessly evolving progressing or changing. But when professional development obstructs growth rather than nurtures it, there is an issue.

I know, now, why teachers quit. And that breaks my heart because I also know the reason we stay.

Purpose. The future. The students. All of which we have the possibility to act as a catalyst towards: something greater and good. It’s something we fight for that is bigger than ourselves. And, despite all of the lack of respect or authority, there is a possibility we can still enact that change. A small pin drop and a ripple.

Luckily, I breathe in possibility. And so do many others.

There have been monuments within moments this year–those that will become permanent… still under scaffolding, but continuously constructing the foundation of my life. Of my identity as a teacher. As a woman. As an academic. Some have splintered with the temptation to renounce my dream–that the grass is greener where I was; it seeps into the crevices of my flaws. But the splinters have been filled by those around who inspire me on daily basis. Who continuously fight because education is relevant. Because our students are relevant. Because every single day is our present stretching towards a future of limitless possibilities. I see you all here, every single day. I see the immense strength you carry in confronting emotional exhaustion every single day. I see you change hopelessness to hope. I see you lead and develop despite hardship. And I cannot thank you enough for guiding me through the growth of this year and for guiding the minds of your kids. You, and my students, are the reason I am coming back.
In 10th Honors we have been focusing on Brave New World and the concept of happiness and suffering…  what a way to end the semester. That perhaps instead of happiness our goal is purpose. Fulfillment. Enacting change. Benefitting society. That perhaps happiness is an occasional by-product of those things instead of an end-goal, and we are better off pursuing our passions and purposes instead. Of embracing all of the trials and emotions that come with life (or working in education), instead of avoiding them–and letting those magnify their other.

Yesterday I sat at my desk, opened a book, and flirted with the upcoming year. Ideas. Creativity. Critical thinking. Analysis. Language. Writing. And suddenly, I realized that I am where I need to be. As my first year as a public high school teacher comes to a close, I am exhausted, but brimming with gratitude for those around me, and hope for how these experiences have fueled my soul and developed my mind.  Soon we will brush the chalk of our hands and begin again.

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