Mrs. Y Reporting for Duty

Over the years, the job of a teacher has slowly evolved. We are counselors, therapists, parents, and oh so much more. We never complain or compromise because we love our students as if they were our own. But now, in the wake of the school shooting in Florida, when did teachers become soldiers too?

Over the past week, I have seen various Facebook posts and news articles about how the solution to our problem is to have teachers conceal and carry weapons in their classroom. I have had several people, parents and students included, approach me and ask me if I would consider doing this.

Let me start by saying there are so many things wrong with this idea I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, I’m 5’0 and close (enough) to 100 lbs. If any of my students (or anyone else in the school for that matter) wanted to overtake me to grab my gun it would take little effort.

Second of all, the suggestion of 156 guns floating around the school would only put us at more risk. Teachers multitask enough between helping students, grading papers, and holding our bladders. Keeping track of a gun is just another thing teachers don’t need to add to the list. All it takes is one teacher to lose track of theirs to put the whole school in danger. I can’t even keep track of my pen for an entire block, forget about a gun.

Also, why do we have an inherent trust of all teachers everywhere? How many news reports have we seen of teachers being convicted predators and criminals? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see any of them with a gun.

I’m not even for it being option for teachers. What kind of message would it send to my students that I could have a gun to protect them but I chose not to? How can I expect my students to feel they are in a safe learning environment knowing they can be safer? They would feel betrayed.

And I know this because I could sense the betrayal when my students asked me if I would conceal and carry and I said no.

Instead I told my students my opinion on the matter and that it is not my job to protect them to this extent. The school already has a protocol in place and that’s what I would follow. I went to school to learn math so I could teach them and part of my teaching exam did not involve boot camp (because trust me, if it did, I would not have been hired).

And that’s when a student responded, “that’s the same thing as being a shop owner and someone comes in and starts shooting your customers and you don’t do anything to protect them.” I responded that just like me, that’s not their job. And he said “so you’re saying it’s ok to stand by and watch and not do anything about it.”

Here’s the thing, I love each of my students dearly. Would I take a bullet for them? Would I stand in the line of fire for them? I really don’t know. It’s hard to say what anyone would do in the moment. It’s hard to even say that if I had a gun I would think to pull it out in that split second. But I am positive that I would do anything in my power to protect them.

But there’s a difference between what I would do and being told what I must do.

I cannot imagine being a teacher at one of these schools and watching one of your students get hurt right in front of your eyes and feeling like you should have done something more to protect them. Because that’s who we are as teachers, it’s how we are built.

But we are not soldiers. We are not human shields. We did not go to school to become body guards. We are educators and society has seriously lost sight of this.

What upsets me above all else, more than having to tell my students that I didn’t love them enough to protect them by carrying a gun, is that I was put in this situation to begin with because society thinks this is a perfectly reasonable request. And this reveals a deeper problem about what people think of teachers.

Why have we completely glossed over practical solutions like increasing the amount of security we have in schools and gone straight to putting teachers in the line of fire? While we are busy protecting our students, who will protect us? What you may see as me being able to protect myself with a weapon, I see as putting a target on my back. And the reason you may not see it this way is because society stopped seeing teachers as human beings a long time ago.

When is society going to start caring about the well being of their teachers?

I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I have seen the words “mental health” over the past week. Criminals, victims, parents, but what about the teachers? When are we going to care about the mental health of teachers who wear so many hats day in and day out? Now we are being asked to put on camouflage to be thrown into battle with no shield?

Enough is enough. Teachers are people too. We may love these students as much as our own but they are not our own. “Our own” are waiting for us to come home at the end of the day. Society has taken advantage of the love and affection we have for our students and is attempting to once again manipulate us. We will do whatever we can to protect our students but it is not our moral obligation to take a bullet for our students and it is not ok for anyone to make us feel like it is.

All students are entitled to an education, but none of them are entitled to my life.

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Dear John

The first day of school, Harry walked into class and I could see there was something special about him. He was clearly in the wrong math class and should have been placed in advanced Algebra 2. Within the first week of school, I contacted both his counselor and his mom and he was moved to Pre IB algebra 2. From then on, every fourth block he would walk into 910 instead of room 909 and I never saw him again.

But this story isn’t about Harry. It’s about the quiet boy who sat next to him, John.

When I had decided to become a teacher, I was rejected from my first choice Masters program. I also failed the Math PRAXIS twice and couldn’t teach at my first county of choice. I was devastated. That was my ticket into teaching and I was had no idea what to do next. Until I found out I didn’t need any of that if I wanted to teach in the city. So I thought I would stay there until I could pass my exams.

Immediately I was hooked. I could get these kids so excited about math and I felt like I was really making a difference. I thought anyone could make a difference in the suburbs, but look at me, I’m making a difference with kids who need me. Anyone could stand in front of the room and teach math to students who come from more. But I teach kids who come from nothing. I was doing “desaseva” as my mom called it, “saving the world” one child at a time. It felt amazing like I had found my calling in life.

Eventually for reasons I won’t go into now, I started to consider leaving the inter-city school system. I had passed my exams and was read for a change. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being selfish for leaving students who needed me for students who didn’t. But then I talked to my teacher friend who told me there are kids everywhere that need you. I didn’t believe her. I thought she just didn’t understand. That was until I decided to leave the city and join the suburbs. That was until I met John.

John, unlike Harry, was very quiet. But like Harry, was extremely bright and clearly could have succeeded in advanced Algebra 2. He shouldn’t have been placed in my class, he belonged in room 910 with Harry. We contacted his mom as well, but John stayed in my class.

Throughout the year John was my top student. Anything I taught he would immediately master and help the rest of his group. If I ever thought I forgot to teach something, John would remind me that I did because he’d know it. I would walk by him each class and give him a little feedback if anything but other than that, John didn’t need me. I was consistently met with the feeling that John could have been learning more in 910 than my room. John could have been learning with students like Harry than with students under his level like the ones in my room.

Later that year, John passed his Virginia Standards of Learning exam with a perfect 600. When I had the pleasure of telling him the news, his face read as obviously. I too had no doubt that of course he did and I had nothing to do with it. I thought whether he was in my classroom or not this would have been the score he rightfully deserved.

The school year ended and John was another student I told good bye! And have a great summer to, never thinking I’d see him again, but believing that no matter where he ended up and whichever teachers had the honor of teaching his brilliant mind, that he would be successful. I truly never believed I’d even hear his name again.

Until that summer when I ran into a family friend of John’s family who informed me that John had signed up for Precalculus to which l thought obviously! But apparently the county had accidently preemptively released student schedules and John’s mom had to make a “phone call” because I wasn’t his Precalculus teacher. I was taken a back. Why did it matter that I wasn’t John’s teacher again this year?

What I learned was that the first week of school when I suggested to John that he move from my class into Advanced Algebra 2, he went home that night and talked to his mom. John felt that for the first time he mattered, that he was seen, heard, and understood. Being the quiet successful student that he was, no one ever stopped to make sure he was included. The collaborastive environment of my class made John feel like he had a role and mattered not only to me, but other people as well. He had always been a successful math student, but in my class it was more than that. He never switched to the class that I thought he belonged in because plain and simple, he loved being in my class and loved his teachers.

I was moved to tears. Every time John earned an A in my class to when he earned that final 600, I never thought it was because of me. I never thought I mattered. I truly felt that anyone could have taught him this subject and he would succeed. But sometimes our role as teachers isn’t just about teaching, it’s about making kids feel like they matter. Sure, anyone could have taught John, but what he taught me was that most of the time, teaching isn’t about teaching. In John’s case, I made him feel like he existed. In other cases, I make students smile, be successful, know I’m there’s and know that I care. Teaching is not just about the education you receive, it’s about the life you believe your students deserve to lead.

And John, just like I almost never knew that I made a difference in your life and education, you may never know just how much of a difference you made in my life. But just know, you will always matter to me.

The Grade Disappointment

Ah. The dreaded Logs and Exponentials test. The one test that each year without fail makes the lowest test average. Not just because the material is difficult, but for the first time students need to study hard and, unfortunately, most don’t.

Grading this test is always hard for me; failing grades back to back … to back. Sure, you can clearly see your top students excelling and see which students put in the time and effort to study. But for what feels like most of students, all you see is your own disappointment.

That afternoon after grading those tests, I came home completely distraught. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to pass back their tests the following day. What was I going to say? What was I going to do to help them bring up their grade? Did students who clearly didn’t study deserve a second chance? It consumed my every thought. It was more than disappointment, it was personal.

So, I sought out the advice of my fellow teachers and asked them how do you not take it personally when your students fail? I was looking for a magical potion to carry my worries away and every teacher I turned to gave me the same answer. I do. I couldn’t believe it.

Teachers spend an insurmountable amount of time and energy on each of their students to help them learn and succeed. I make myself available to my students each morning. On this test, I provided them with not one or two but three test reviews. I even told them exactly what was on the test, down to the very questions. And yet, only a handful of them went back to study. How could they do that to me?

How could one student write “please explain” on several questions when I could have explained at any point throughout the unit if she had just asked.

How could another student write “IDK” on nearly every question when I told him exactly which questions to study.

How could my class not be their number one priority?

And that’s what I failed to realize before. I spend at least 6 hours each day with my students at the center of my mind thinking of activities and resources to help them learn and succeed. But them? They spend very few hours thinking about my class outside of the 90 minutes every other day when they are actually in my classroom. They’re thinking about their other classes, video games, sports, friends, their lives. But, when they are the center of our world, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are not. And as a result, we end up with mixed emotions and meager explanations.

Maybe I didn’t explain this concept well enough. Let me talk to their old math teacher and find out how they did last year. Maybe there was something more I could have done.

The next day I was ready to give their tests back. I had a pep talk all planned out for them. I was going to give them encouragement that they could bring their grades up and I was ready to help them get there. I was nervous. What if they would all gang up on me and tell me I was an awful teacher? What if they would tell me that the test was unfair and I didn’t teach them something correctly? What if they were right?

Instead, their response was even more shocking.

While you all are working today, I’m going to hand back your tests.

“Oh no.” *dreadful looks*

Before I give them back to you, I want you all to know that this test is notoriously the hardest test of the year. This is the first time this class is difficult and you need to study harder than you did before.

*head nods all around*

However, it was also very obvious if you did not study at all for this test.

*accusatory glances are their friends*
*shrugs of acknowledgement from students who scored poorly*

But I want you to know that I am here for you and you can do test corrections as always.

*Mischievous looks at each other as if my test correction policy was brand new, even though it’s the same one I’ve had all year.*

I know you all can do this and this material is difficult, but I am here for you to help you succeed.

I couldn’t believe it! The students that didn’t do well knew they didn’t do what they needed to do. Even “IDK” and “please explain” who caused me so much grief humbly asked me about the test corrections policy and if there was anything else they could do.

All of the grief that this situation brought me was for nothing. And it made a lot of sense after the fact: these students are my whole world, and I am just a piece of their world. Their failures are my failures, but my disappointment isn’t necessarily theirs. And I have to be ok with that.

So did my spiel of encouragement prove to be effective? All I can say for now is that later in the week, I overheard everyone asking their friends if they studied for their first trigonometry quiz. I was not disappointed to hear many yes’s, and this time, grading their quizzes wasn’t so painful.

The Diary of a Guilty Teacher

They say that between years 4 and 5 teachers reach a bump in their careers. Now that they’ve learned the ropes and are masters of their own classrooms with lessons they can use from year to year, their eyes are now open to all of the other issues facing education: truancy, administration, parents being overly involved or not at all, standardized testing, and the list goes on and on. Sure, they’ve noticed it before. But not like this. Never like this. It is between years 4 and 5 where they decide if this is really the career for them or not. If they can get past this hump, they are good for life. If not, well, it’s time to find another job.

This is year 4.5 for me and I’ve definitely hit that bump. Now that I feel more confident in the classroom, I’ve opened my eyes wider to the issues facing education. But above all issues I’ve noticed, there is one that reigns supreme, one that no matter whether you’re in the inter-city or suburbs that affects education unlike anything else: apathy.

Specifically, student apathy towards education. The number of students who do not care about their education enough to do their homework or to study for tests and quizzes or even show up to class is overwhelming. This year more than ever I noticed it. But looking back, this has always been an issue for me in my career.

I know it seems silly to a non-teacher. If a student doesn’t care, why is that your problem? That’s their education they’re there to receive from you so if they don’t want to learn or do anything, that’s on them and their parents, not you. And while this may be true, any educator will tell you one of the hardest things we have to do to watch a student’s apathy lead to their demise.

You see, from the moment a student walks into our classroom, we have begun to form a relationship with them. Within the first two weeks, I can assess a student’s potential. Within the first month, we have reached an understanding of each other and know how to work together. By the second month, that respect and understanding has turned to love. For me, the hardest part about teaching is watching someone you love make poor choices when you know how much they are capable of.

And so what happens? Teachers beat themselves up going from counselor, to assistant principals, to parent-teacher conferences trying to help everyone understand that this child needs help. Success plans are made, schedule changes are considered, and yet the age old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” sings true. No matter what you try to do for your students, at the end of the day if they don’t choose to do their homework, study, show up to class, and care, there’s nothing else you can do. And after giving all of that time and energy to the success of this child, coming to that realization is the hardest part about it all.

This is the biggest issue that has made teaching 4.5 the hardest year for me.

My first year of teaching, my mentor told me you have to care just a little bit more than your students. Then they will figure out a way to meet you and then you do it again until they finally meet your standards. I haven’t been teaching nearly as long as her, but I think this advice is flawed. Because caring a little bit more than each of my 120 kids is exhausting. And after 4.5 years of following this advice, I am completely exhausted.

I am exhausted from the student who has 15+ absences in my class and when she chooses to show up, makes a mockery of my class. When she decides to stay after to catch up on material she has missed and I finally feel like we’ve made progress and she assures me she’s going to turn it around, she misses the next 5 classes.

I am exhausted from chasing a student who chooses to sleep in my class every day and trying to convince him there are better math classes he could be taking that will help him achieve his future goals. Or he can do the math he signed up for, and after we create a plan to help him get there, he comes in the next day and sleeps through class again.

I am exhausted from the number of students who never meet my standards for how much I want them to care. And more than anything, I am tired of taking their apathy personally.

Right before winter break, a wise teacher gave me some life-changing advice: I needed to find a way to care less.

I know that sounds terrible, as if the solution to apathy is more apathy. And the sheer amount of guilt I felt from deciding to follow this advice is insurmountable. But what I learned over the past month was that I love each and every one of my students dearly and I will always care about them and their success. But it is not my job to care about their education for them and more importantly, it is ok to love myself more than I love them. There are more important things in life than my job. My husband, friends, family, all of this will be there when I’m not teaching anymore and it’s OK to make time for them instead of grading papers and writing emails.

Now, I leave every day at 3:45. I don’t take any papers home (if I can avoid it), I turned off my student messaging app, I check my email once maybe twice after I come home. I don’t hold students to such strict deadlines and I’m a much more lenient teacher. I don’t chase students around trying to make them make up their tests and quizzes and let them come to me. And because I don’t stress myself out as much, I don’t come back from each day with heavy shoulders and feeling tired from the day. Instead I focus on the students who do care and want to be successful. I will continue to drop heaven and earth in a heartbeat to help them. I pour my heart and soul into my lesson plans because planning fun and engaging activities has always been my favorite part of teaching. I continue to fight for, not just my apathetic students but, all of my students, just in a more healthy and less all-consuming way

For the first time in my career, I have the time and energy to care and love myself. I actually have time to go to the gym now and do the things I love, like blogging. I am so much more tuned in with myself and my own emotions because I’m not constantly filled with emotions from my students and the day. After 3:30, teacher me is turned off and I can be myself again for the first time in 4.5 years.

But the downside to all of this: I feel so guilty. I can’t seem to rid my self of the feeling that I should be doing more.

And why do I feel guilty? Because society unfortunately makes teachers into martyrs who stay at school until 7pm, bring home papers to grade, are available 24/7 for their students day and night. They are portrayed as these incredible selfless heroes who are “underpaid and overworked.”

Well, over the past month here is what I have figured out. Teachers can be all of this and more, but between the hours of 8:30am and 3:30pm and there is nothing wrong with that.

It would be naive to assume all of the negativity can be turned off and happy teacher can be turned on, and it’s definitely a work in progress. But one thing is for sure: this mindset change has allowed me to successfully work through my 4.5 year teacher bump and I’m so ready for a life of learning and loving. Not just for my students, but myself as well.