I’m a teacher. I’m a high school teacher. I’m a high school English teacher.
Are you still reading? Haven’t run away in horror yet?
Let’s just say, when I tell people what I do for a living, the response isn’t usually positive.
One man went on a full-blown rant about how much he hated his English class in high school. While he was explaining all the reasons English class was useless, all I could do was take note of his use of rhetoric, his eloquent display vocabulary and syntax, and think that he must have had more than a few really good English teachers.
Right now, though, being a teacher is bizarre. Every day I feel like I’m living in an article in The Onion, but, no, it’s reality.
I’ve tried to explain it to non-teachers and cannot find the right words. I’ve tried to talk to other teachers about it and still can’t find the words, but they at least can respond with a sincere “I know.” We smile tiredly at each other (over Zoom), sigh, and keep going.
I was a first-year teacher when the Twin Towers were bombed. Teaching during that time was strange, too.
I remember on the day it happened, as the news unfolded, and the enormity of the situation sunk in, being at school seemed like the wrong place to be. Students, though, needed to be there because even in high school, their brains aren’t developed.
They needed comfort on issues an adult would never think about, much less a stressed-out parent trying to suddenly handle a thousand different roles. On September 11th, 2001, a female student in my sophomore English class asked me, almost in tears, if she was going to have to get rid of all of her clothes and start wearing what women in the Middle East wore.
During this COVID isolation, I think about that question, and how important it was to that girl at that time and wonder if she would have been able to ask it at home. At that moment, she needed reassurance that things would be normal despite the fact that things were far from it.
Right now, and over the past month, I miss my students, and I miss the normal. Everything seems scarier when everything changes. Yes, quarantine is the best solution right now, but, for teachers, it makes us reflect on our jobs in an entirely different way.
All teachers know that they got into the profession not entirely because of what they teach, but who they teach.
Suddenly, our who is gone.
Yes, they are still out there behind screens, just like we are, but it is not the same. Can I still call myself a teacher if I’m just making Zoom videos, answering emails, and administering assignments? I feel like I need a new name because something is lacking.
On the other hand, it’s all so overwhelming, too. Every teacher I know is doing everything they can and more. Life and work no longer have any separation, but it just doesn’t feel like enough.
Teachers miss their students—I miss my students.
I’m not a warm-fuzzy type who will write everyone an individual note at the end of the year, or have a cool handshake when they walk in the door, but I care in my own way. The kids who enter and exit my classroom door know that.
As one former student put it, “You’re the nicest mean person I’ve ever met. What’s with that?”
What’s with that—is my desire for them to learn, to push themselves, to see what they can achieve, even and especially when it isn’t fun, but necessary. I want them to be prepared to work hard and succeed. I want them to excel, and feel proud of themselves.
I am a candle, lighting the way, and disappearing when they can do it on their own. No one really remembers the candle, but for a small period of time, that candle was essential.
For the last five years, I’ve taught 12th grade English. I strive to prepare them for life, and what’s coming next—no safety net, no second chances, no familiarity. I don’t feel like I got to finish that lesson.
They lost all the fun senior things, and as a teacher, I lost this last stretch of time. It’s the face to face that makes a difference, that makes a teacher, and we all lost that.
2020 isn’t just an abnormal school year, and it’s not the school year that ended suddenly. It is the school year that didn’t get to end, and that will forever leave a hole in the heart of a teacher.