When I started my teaching career, I bought five things.
First, an EZ Grader. If you grew up prior to the computer age, your teachers all had one. They were mint green and used a sliding graph to tell you what the grade should be depending how many questions were incorrect. My fifth grade teacher used to let me hold hers and call out the grades to the class as we corrected our papers. When I was teaching, I saved that privilege for myself. I still have that EZ Grader. It’s in a box in storage, the edges are fuzzily frayed and one edge has split so that the card slides out if I am not careful. I love it with a deep passion.
Second, oil pastel crayons and a Carson Dellosa clip art book for making bulletin board pieces by hand. My university most definitely did not endorse buying pre-made bulletin board supplies. We were not allowed to use those brightly colored corrugated borders in our college work- it was the lazy way. We hand crunched butcher paper or pressed out hundreds of seasonal shapes and stapled them one by one around the edges of the board. This philosophy is what led to my toddler standing in front of me, arms outstretched, tears on her face, as I wouldn’t pick her up so that I could keep cutting out calendar pieces (like that bee- I had a calendar with that bee with the dates written on the wings) for my first classroom. My mother in law saw this moment and very wisely told me that I would not have those little arms to hug me forever and maybe I could find another way to do bulletin boards. I started using the pre-bought corrugated stuff, and my students learned in spite of it. Thanks, MIL- you were so right!
Third, a vintage Swingline stapler that I found at a garage sale. This one was brown and metal and hardcore, nothing like the plastic ones that you get now. I used it to staple papers and hang student work for all twenty two years of my career. And when I left the classroom for an office job, it broke that very first week. No, I am not making it up. I kept it, just in case I ever figure out how to get it working again. But also as a reminder that the stapler, just like me, made it for as long as it could in the world of the classroom, and that its duty was done.
Fourth, an apple pencil holder. Apples are ubiquitous for teachers. It just so happens that I love them. I think it’s because my Grandma June had, hanging in her home, a beautiful piece of polished driftwood with a blue barrel full of apples painted on it by her own hands. It said “Thank you, God, for the simple goodness of a shiny red apple.” I first saw it hanging in her bathroom in the sweet little Tudor inspired 1920s cottage that my grandparents lived in in New Mexico, it traveled to their Texas lake house later, and when I married, my Pop gave it to me. It has been hung in every house we have lived in for thirty years.
I have been given apples of every kind: big red delicious apples, apples on mugs, apples on jewelry, apples on Christmas tree ornaments, apples on tee shirts. And mostly, they were sweet.
The sweet moments in teaching came from hugs, from pictures, from watching kids get a concept. Sometimes parents would recognize my work and say thanks with a spa gift card. One of my favorite teacher gifts is a wind chime that has been hanging in my flower beds for twenty years. The kids whose moms went in together to buy it for me are now thirty years old and having kids.
After seven years of elementary classroom teaching, a therapist was helping me sort through tons of issues, and asked “If you could teach anything, what would it be?” My completely spontaneous answer: “Theatre.” And the very next year, I was offered a junior high theatre position in my district. Sometimes, the Divine One hears a heart wish and moves things to make it so.
I taught theatre for fifteen years. I directed plays and musicals and taught students about pantomime and improv. I once had a student who was so terrified to stand up in front of her peers that we started by just letting her come to the auditorium with me and one friend, and she practiced standing and saying her own name. It took four years, but she was performing pieces in front of the class and playing a character in a booth at the Renaissance festival by her graduation day. Those are the sweet moments. Those are the kids that make the job worth almost every heartache.
Because sometimes, just every once in a while, there’s a worm in the apple. Or it turns out to be rotten to its core.
For one thing, for a truly introverted human being, teaching is a complete drain. No matter the age of the student, they require utmost attention and have unceasing needs. Sometimes it’s the need for a shoe to be tied or a Friday folder to be found in a messy desk. Or maybe it’s the need to have a discreet lice check in their scalp. It could be an extra hour of reading tutoring after school. When the students are in high school, they often need advice, or a hand to hold while they sob. No matter what their age, all students need advocacy. Unlagging, unflinching, untiring advocacy.
You may have figured out by now, with my wounded mom, my worn out dad, and my penchant for heroes like Mary Poppins that I wanted to be that advocate. Most of the time, I did pretty well. But there were times when my words got the best of me. There were times when I said something I shouldn’t. What I discovered about myself was that my gas tank could get seriously depleted, and when it did, I had a hard time being sympathetic. Or I left everything in the classroom and had nothing left to care for my husband, kids, or self.
Teaching nearly killed me. It was both blessing and curse, and if you ask nearly any educator in this country today, they will tell you the same thing (if they are honest). I am in a Facebook group that is secret and private and full of teachers whose stories of cruel school administrators, spiteful parents, and apathetic students reverberate with frustration and anger. Sometimes, these teachers post victories. But when they need encouragement, they come to their secret colleagues and they wail. And the group rallies around them, patching them up so they can get back on the battlefield. So many of my teacher friends have had to leave the profession.
As I grew up, teaching was never really on my radar as a potential career. I tended to bounce between singer, nurse (until I realized how gross their job is), interior decorator, and psychologist (I got more sophisticated, but maybe not more practical). I followed family tradition into a private Christian liberal arts college, where getting your MRS degree was still a primary goal. Upon bailing from a vocal music degree (I should have been singing show tunes instead of German lieder) I drifted into an Elementary Education degree plan. It’s what all my friends were doing, and it was a good career for a young woman who wanted to raise a family. It was also a “Godly” career choice- Jesus loves it when, if a woman has to work outside the home, she at least does it in a way that serves people and gets her off at the same holidays as her kids. Great reasons for choosing a career, right?
I got off to a rough start. The act of teaching is actually pretty natural for me- planning and executing lessons made sense. I spent hours turning my classroom into a colorful environment full of books and words. I graded papers. So many papers. Every kind of paper from first grade simple addition to third grade science journals to college level essays.
But what I struggled with was the kids who were difficult. I had not been equipped to deal with the attacks. I took them personally- I internalized them. Sometimes I lashed out.
But sometimes, I was lashed at.
One morning, just as I was about to walk out the door into the dark predawn to head to school, I saw a news story that both surprised and yet did not surprise me. In California, a teacher beat up a 15 year old student who became aggressive in an attempt to get her makeup back. In the cell phone video, the student can be seen bumping up against the teacher, talking trash and bullying the teacher until the teacher snaps and advances on the student, fists flying . The teacher and student end up on the floor, rolling and kicking and pulling hair, all while another student records the action with a cell phone. I imagine most people would be shocked, dismayed, and indignant. I was, for about three seconds: “How could a teacher do that? Doesn’t she know that our job is to protect these students?” Then I remembered.
Once, I came upon a couple having an argument in the hallway. It was my conference period and I was on my way to the front office. These two were in the middle of what looked like a pretty ugly disagreement. It was in the middle of the class period, so the halls were empty and quite frankly, it looked like this young woman might be in physical danger if I didn’t get them separated. I told them to return to class, then watched until the young lady got back into her art class. At that point, her boyfriend pinned me into a corner, balled up his fists, and seethed threats and innuendos into my face. I was all alone, the halls were deserted, we were out of sight of the security camera, and this was a 17 year old kid who definitely had the physical strength and stature to do me harm. I managed to keep a poker face until he finally left me, then I got myself to the front office and fell apart.
On another occasion I had to break up a fight between two girls and ended up punched so hard I could not move my arm at all for about an hour and had bruises in the shape of knuckles on my bicep for weeks.
My husband worked in a post secondary trade school, where a student cut the brake lines on a teacher’s car in retaliation for what the student believed was an unsatisfactory grade.
Teachers have to practice drills with their students to protect themselves and their students in case someone goes rogue terrorist. Remember Sandy Hook.
Acts of aggression against teachers are not just physical. Every day, teachers contend with insults and defiance. Social media is used to rake teachers over hot coals of insolence. You may have seen the video clip of 68 year old bus aide Karen Klein being taunted for over ten minutes on a bus. The insults and language she endured are appalling.
Teachers are told over and over to rise above all of these unacceptable behaviors. They must be ever professional and calm, always responding to verbal or physical disrespect with cool detachment. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, teachers somehow manage to calmly walk away and fill out a discipline referral or call a parent, knowing that very little may be accomplished.
The mother of the young lady who threatened the teacher did not seem at all remorseful that her daughter had acted so inappropriately. She was full of righteous indignation that a teacher had defended herself. I just do not get that. If one of my kids advanced on a teacher like that, I think I would have some serious parenting issues to address.
This is from an article by Tim Walker in the National Education Association’s online publication:
“According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Teacher victimization is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers. And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.”
The article goes on to explain the prevalence of harassment and violence against teachers, behaviors that are perpetrated primarily by both students and parents.
The American Psychological Association says:
“Each year, 253,100 (7 percent) teachers are threatened with injury…
- 78,500 (31 percent) male teachers
- 174,500 (69 percent) female teachers”
Teachers sometimes find themselves in highly charged environments. The students significantly outnumber them and they are, in truth, only protected by trust in student adherence to the social contract and their reluctance to get in trouble. Most of the students I encountered every day had absolutely no desire to harm me or anyone else. But all it takes is one simmering kid to boil over and hit, push, stab, or shoot.
Look, I am not saying that the teacher in California did right. What I am saying is that when big adolescents who outweigh educators lift a hand and threaten harm, teachers might respond like any reasonable human. They might just hit back.
When students smear teachers on social media, they might just want to frame their own social media responses in defense.
When students steal from teachers and trash classrooms and belongings, teachers might just wonder what life in another profession looks like.
I know it was part of what drove me to a place of self abuse and hospitalization. After my hospital stay, I managed to teach for four more years. From those last four years, I still have so many moments that I am proud of, so many students I deeply loved, shows that won awards and nominations, and even a master’s degree in my teaching field. But for my own health, I had to leave the profession.
Sometimes, it’s not JUST about the students.