Rebecca Klein wrote an article for the Huffington Post this week about the optimism found in teachers who, through no fault of their own, are often portrayed as ready to give up. In looking at some data from Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she found what I know to be true about teachers everywhere: each of them started off as optimistic as Pollyanna. Now, none of that is exactly news to me, but the article left a lot of room for some missing pieces. Rebecca, by the way, is the associate editor for Huffington Post Education, so I would hope that she could see where the pitfalls were.
Like many people in education, I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided to be a teacher. It was while I was a junior at university where I was majoring in English Literature. There really was nothing that I was interested in yet, so I decided to go with a major that made sense: I loved to read so why not do it for every class? Halfway through college, I decided to add a minor, but I still wasn’t convinced that I had direction about a career. Toward the end of my junior year, a friend of mine needed a ride to do a classroom observation in the next town over from ours. Since I had a car and needed to run an errand, I told her I would take her. She was an elementary education major (my university started as a teacher’s college so there were a lot of those majors) and had to do several observations prior to starting her student teaching. Like many of the responses in the Scholastic survey, Makayla wanted to “make a difference” and “inspire others” and “challenge students to be their best” in life. Since she only had to watch the classroom teacher instruct for an hour, I decided to sit in the classroom with her while she took notes to report back to class.
Oh, my God. This is what I want to do. I thought.
And that was that. I drove straight back to my advisor’s office and started taking classes to earn a secondary education degree.
Like Makayla, I was optimistic about teaching and couldn’t wait until I got my first classroom, sat at my first desk and graded papers, and inspired all my students to be their best and become Rhodes scholars who would end up changing the world and would one day come back and gift me with a Lamborghini. I thought, for sure, that I WOULD INSPIRE A NATION OF CHILDREN who would adore me for it.
As you can guess, none of that happened. My first classroom was shared, and I traveled all over the building. I also got married and pregnant that year, so I carried a backpack around with all my books and things in it. I looked like an orange on some toothpick legs and got bumped quite a bit in the hallway. My first fight broke out in my classroom, and I covered my growing belly with my hands and yelled for help. Several students called me a bitch that year.
Yet, here I still am, plugging away at this job even if I’m not a traditional classroom teacher any longer. Actually, now that I deal with parents on a regular basis, too, I have found that optimism waning as I take blame that doesn’t belong to me and beg students to come to school because the truancy review board is on my case to get them here thanks to No Child Left Behind. My favorite, however, is the parent who told me that her mother was going to come up to school and kick my ass. Mind you, this would be my student’s grandmother.
What is there to say to that? “Fine,” I told the mom. “You tell her to come down to room 13. I’ll be here.”
That optimism I had, to change the world and watch students learn skills in an excited way still hasn’t left me, though. It’s still there. Maybe it’s not as naïve as it used to be, my hope of being a change agent, but it’s still there. There’s just more realism involved now. I don’t take things personally when parents or students are angry. I’m wiser and older now. The teachers I work with, some of them young and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (wow, even that phrase is old) come in with the same feelings of cheerfulness and with positive attitudes. I try not to kill it for them or quote pessimistic data for them about how the national average for teacher turnover is 17%. (20% in urban areas.) It’s hard not to be downtrodden about it with Common Core charging through the school systems or constant budget cuts or losing staff, but I do it because I remember what it was like in the moment I decided this would be my life’s work.
Optimism hasn’t left teachers, but many of them are very beat down and tire of the “failing schools” mantra and wish parents would be appropriately involved with teaching skills to children. We wish they didn’t come to use left behind already. But, we can’t fix any of that. Many teachers walk into their classrooms day after day and do their level best, and there are some amazing things being taught across the nation in our schools. Those stories are harder to hear with the noise of failure all around us.
I’m still hopeful that we’re making a difference and putting a dent in education. Inspiration is still happening. Change is constantly occurring. Ask any teacher if they’re making a difference. They’ll tell you the truth.
What about me? Would I do it all over again? You bet I would.