What Does it Mean to be a Teacher?

A few days ago there was a shooting outside the school where I used to work. I don’t know the details, all I know is that it was after school, so no kids were there, and that all of the teachers were still inside. My friends were in their professional development meeting when they heard the shots. The police then kept the school on lockdown for an additional 45 minutes to make sure that the area was safe for everyone to go home. Everyone was expected at school the next day.

One of my teacher friends made a great point about the fact that she (and many of our colleagues including myself) grew up in an environment where a shooting outside of a school meant no school the following day, or more police presence, and additional counselors brought in for the kids who needed someone to talk to. Given where the school is located and where my students live, I can only assume that none of those things happened. There are already metal detectors at the kids entrance and kids are required to be scanned like they are getting on a plane every day on their way into the building. The kids are desensitized, believing that gun shots outside your bedroom window or across the street from your school may be scary, but it’s also normal. They all know someone who has been shot: a friend, a cousin, a sibling, a parent. It hurts them, it makes the angry, but they believe it is just something you live with. That was not a fact of my life when I was a kid.

As horrible as it is that the kids are “used to” this kind of violence, the teachers are not. And what about those teachers? When I was a teacher I witnessed a full physical fight at least twice a week. Sometimes I would have to grab a kid off of another kid, get in someone’s face to distract them from punching someone else, and one time I even took a chair out of a kid’s hands who was about to throw it into a crowd of brawling students. As a teacher, we’re told to not get in the middle of a fight because we not “covered” for injuries sustained if we do that. So the deans and guidance counselors who did get in the middle of the fights had it much worse. Looking back now, I see that I was desensitized; I just wanted to do my job and keep my kids safe. Then my friends and I would tell the story of what happened and laugh about it over drinks. What else could we do? But I wonder, if I had been in the school on Monday and heard gun shots, would I have been able to go back? Would that have been the last straw? In reality I know that my friends and I would have leaned on each other and talked to each other in the absence of counselors. Just like I know they are all there for each other now.

I didn’t leave teaching because of the violence. It was scary and strange and definitely wore me down over the six years I was working in a public school, but it wasn’t the only reason. In the news you hear so much about how teachers are to blame for our failing schools and our failing kids. Teachers are the reason that test scores are low and kids can’t read. Even within the school, if a kid is doing poorly, or not showing up, or acting out in class, it is the teacher’s fault. The questions are: Did you call their house? Did you give them detention? Do you have good classroom management? The questions are not: What is going on with this kid at home? What is really bothering this child? How can we help? As a teacher, I got so beaten down by the constant scrutiny and questioning of my job, and I was a good teacher. I had high test scores. My kids learned how to write. It was rare for that to be noticed. My failures were more closely examined than my successes.

The media and certain politicians want to say that teachers are lazy: we end work at 3pm and we have summers off. First of all, I don’t know any teachers who don’t work in the summer time to make a little bit of extra money. Most teachers I know don’t even take a break from working with kids. They’re your camp counselors and your summer school teachers. Also, I know personally, I never left school before 6: I ran the after school theater program. I also know that when I would leave at 6, I was rarely the last teacher out of the building. There were teachers planning and grading and organizing their classrooms for the next day. Teachers who had been yelled at and cursed at and pushed over in the halls, wondering how their lessons could have been better. If there lesson plan had been more engaging, would that have stopped the fight?

I mean, maybe, but at the end of the day, our students lives are so full of what is happening outside of the classroom there is hardly room for what is happening inside of it. They are concerned with their appearance, their social lives, and looking “tough.” Probably because of all of those things in their lives that are beyond their control and make them feel weak and helpless. They can’t show that though, there is no room to be vulnerable in their lives.

Being a teacher is the hardest job anyone will ever have. I could never have written a blog when I was a teacher. Sure I got vacation time and had evenings, but those times were spent emotionally preparing myself for the next day. Or, in the case of extended breaks, I would spend days on the couch staring at the TV trying to remember who I was and what I was worth as a person, beyond just being a teacher. There was no creative energy left for my own pursuits.

Teachers are people, just like kids are people. We have feelings and career goals and hopes for our students. We became teachers to help, to get involved in our students lives. We want to do better, we want to do our best. We want to give our kids an education so that they can have a better life. We want join the fight to make children our future, but we cannot take on this fight alone. It is not only our responsibility, it is everyone’s.

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9 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to be a Teacher?

  1. Pingback: What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher? | Progressive Action New Hampshire

  2. Hey Lara, this was refreshing to read and obviously, I can totally relate. I never realized how desensitized i was to, and how traumatic in some ways, the environment (violence, abuse, etc) of our public schools are for teachers until I was many months removed. You articulated (very well) a lot of my thoughts exactly!

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