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.

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