Once upon a lesson, I was teaching my little heart out. It was one of those “don’t kill my vibe” lessons when I was on a roll and just couldn’t stop. My students appeared to be listening with rapt attention, so either they were actually learning or just fixated on the crazy look in my eyes that naturally happens when I’m teaching the literary structure of The Great Gatsby (#YouDecide). As Beyonce would say, I was feeling myself up in E104, and I mean that in the most pedagogical way possible.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot of things, actually. But on this day it was the sly, gradual hand raise with an accompanying smirk, which usually means the dreaded “irrelevant question” that derails the class by eliciting awkward silence, laughter, or general shenanigans.
Even when I suspect a question is irrelevant, I often can’t resist giving the kid the floor. What if it IS relevant? What if I squash a learning opportunity? What if I shoot a question down and the kid never asks one again? These questions would linger in my weird teacher mind forever.
So I gave the kiddo a chance, but not without prefacing my response with a dose of healthy sass: “Is this a relevant question?”
He paused–usually not a good sign. Cue my signature “C’mon, bro, if you have to think about it, it’s probably not a good idea” look.
Finally, the student said “Kinda?” with a look of slight confusion on his face. Well, what the heck. My vibe was already on pause. I could take it. And who knows? Maybe this would be one of those old-fashioned light bulb moments. A teacher can dream, right?
Even though I was wishing for a light bulb, I braced myself for pure ridiculousness.(When you teach high school, you have to be a realist.) So I was surprised when the question was actually neither. In fact, it was almost as if a random, irrelevant question and the most intriguing, intelligent inquiry had a baby…
“So, when are you going to stop being so enthusiastic? Like when will you not love this whole teaching thing so much?” he innocently asked.
(Context: This was coming from a very sweet kiddo. He was not rude–not trying to disrespect me, mock my enthusiasm, ruin my lesson, or anything of the sort. He was honestly curious, as if he thought all teachers eventually slowed down, burnt out, and eventually powered off when the gig got too rough. Wait–did I just describe retirement? I’ll get back to you on that in about 40+ years…)
I was tempted to launch into an impassioned, “NEVER! I’LL NEVER STOP!” rant as I often do when my kiddos tell me to “chill.” But I knew this was not the time to “act a fool” like I normally do. This was serious. This kid had dropped a bomb. CODE RED: Initiate response!
25 sets of eyes stared back at me as I mentally paused my actual lesson plan and prepared to unleash the big dogs: the life lessons.
But how do you respond to a question like that? The question was playful to him, but it couldn’t have been more serious to me and my fellow teachers in the trenches. To understand the threatening truth behind his innocent question, one just has to look at the alarming teacher turnover rates and the current teacher shortage plaguing our nation. Teachers do burn out and stop loving this whole teaching thing sometimes. I couldn’t ignore this unfortunate fact implied in my student’s question. I knew I had to address it.
So I began how I always do when I am about to drop an impromptu life lesson: “Let me tell you something children.” This is a phrase that makes me feel old and wise, as if I am FDR about to begin a fireside chat. And trust me, you need to do things to make yourself feel older and wiser when you are 24 but look more like the age of your students
And so the rest of my monologue went a little something like this…
I absolutely LOVE this whole teaching thing. I want to stay between E104’s 4 windowless, cell phone service-less walls forever. I get to wake up every morning and head to a place that I love, where I get to do what I love, while surrounded by people who I love. (These people love me back…most days…I’m looking at you, students!) I’m only 24, but I’ve already found my “happy place” and my purpose in life. I was quite literally BORN to teach. I often find myself smiling and thinking “Is this real life?” when I remember that I get paid to do this every single day. I get to make a fool of myself, teach cool things, and trick kiddos into learning. My favorite catch phrase is “HAHA! TRICKED YA! MADE YA LEARN!” Basically, I get paid to be so absolutely ridiculous that I somehow orchestrate learning. I like to think that I am a professional weirdo. (I may have to get business cards emblazoned with this title, now that I think of it.)
I’m equally obsessed with what I teach. Sure, I may be “over-the-top,” “too cheesy,” or “too enthusiastic,” but I embrace my nerdiness. I warn my students on the very first day of school that I am THAT crazy English teacher lady. I have the perfect lineup of classes: American literature, journalism, and newspaper. I get to teach the way in which American literature reflects history and culture, the way freedom of the press facilitates a true democracy, and the way words can change the world. But I am not just teaching a curriculum or a set of standards. I am empowering my students by helping them find a voice through writing. I am helping my students build empathy through the literature we read and discuss. I am improving my students’ ability to critically think and problem-solve, skills that last a lifetime and encompass all careers. I am preparing students to be productive, contributing members of society. I am imparting invaluable life lessons and spreading kindness. I have the power to change over 100,000 lives, if I teach/interact with approximately 300 kiddos each year for a 40-year span. When you think about how many lives my students will then change when they leave my classroom and enter the crazy “real world,” the impact is exponential. This whole teaching thing can really make the world a better place. I am a firm believer in one person’s ability to influence the world. Maybe that sounds a bit whimsical, but that’s just me. If nothing else, I am making that many people smile throughout the course of my lifetime. That’s good enough for me.
There is nothing else I would rather do. I always joke about how I’ll teach until the day I keel over and die, but I seriously cannot fathom doing anything else. I realize this may sound naive to some. I am only 2 years in, so I certainly don’t have the perspective of a seasoned, experienced teacher who has witnessed the ever-changing reform measures, loss of control in the classroom, onslaught of standardized testing, and increasing demands without compensation. Sure, some of my energy and positivity toward the profession can be attributed to my youth and lack of experience. But most of it stems from the fact that I am a die-hard, try-hard teacher who loves what she does. I couldn’t survive the stress of this profession if I wasn’t 100% in love with it. Teaching has got to be a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t absolutely love it. Even I have days when the bell rings and I flop my head down on my desk in defeat, sighing and thinking, “I know why teachers quit.” The stress alone could drive a teacher to leave the profession, but the lack of respect and appreciation from society is just the icing on the cake. It’s easy to see how a great teacher could gradually lose enthusiasm and not love this whole teaching thing so much, as my student acknowledged in his innocent question.
I can empathize with these burnt out teachers. I can even empathize with teachers who leave the profession altogether. But I refuse to become one of them. Still, I do not blame or judge these teachers. I’ve felt their frustration–maybe just a fraction of it, but the struggle is the same. This frustration is exactly what I will fight as I grow older and log more years in the classroom. If I am not actively combating teacher burnout, it could easily sneak up on me. (I’m currently composing a personal burnout prevention plan, so stay tuned.) Occasionally, I worry I may be fighting the inevitable, but then I think of teachers who have beat the burnout…the ones who are still smiling every single day, even though they’ve been in one of the most stressful, tumultuous professions for thirty-plus years. I know these teachers–I sat in their classrooms and now I see them down the halls. These teachers are society’s real superheroes, and I can only hope I am one of them someday.