Being a teacher is not what most people think it is. Heck, it’s not even what most teaching candidates think it is. You enter the profession wide-eyed and full of faith. You believe in your abilities; you believe in yourself. You will illuminate the beauty of literature, the power of mathematics, the wisdom of history, the magic of science. You imagine your students to be eager little vessels waiting patiently to be filled with your brilliance. You are ready to teach. They are ready to learn.
But here’s what you yourself learn — really, really quickly…
Only a select few of your students are eager little vessels thirsty for knowledge. They are the few and the far between. And when you actually get some of those few and far between students in your classroom, it feels amazing. They are driven and focused and quick little studies, and you find yourself thinking you are an amazing teacher.
But here’s the facts of the matter: you’re not amazing; they are. They are amazing. And it has nothing to do with you. Not really. Teaching a subject to eager students is not teaching. Nope. That’s merely taking a hungry kid to a buffet and watching her eat. You didn’t even make the food. You just led her to it. Deflate your Promethean ego and focus on the facts.
If you got into education to teach your subject and strut your stuff, you need to get out. Like yesterday. Most students are not impressed with YOU. They don’t give a darn about your subject or how many degrees or dogs or daughters you have. Many are only impressed with their friends, their text messages, their social media, their music, their video games, their sports, and their phones. (Oh, Lord how they love their phones.)
And for some of them, they focus on these things because they are fundamental to who they think they are: young and popular and primed for greatness. Their worlds are on fire with passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you? You are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the joys that await them when they leave school. They love their lives, not class.
But for others, they focus on these things because they are distractions from who they think they are: ugly and empty and profoundly worthless. Their worlds are burning down from passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the jabs that await them when they leave school. They loathe their lives and they loathe class.
This last group is by far the hardest to teach. They lash out. They cuss you out. They cut their eyes at you. They cut your class. They sleep or snark or throw middle fingers in the air. They throw insults and elbows. They are hard to manage, hard to guide, hard to instruct, hard to teach, hard to love.
But they need you the most. They need you to teach them. Not your subject. Them.
And to do it right, you’ve got to get invested. Be invested. And stay invested. Know who they are. Know who you’re working with. And what they’re working with. I promise you, you’ll be shocked.
I’ve had students who were being abused, physically or sexually or both. I’ve had students riding the wreckage of dirty divorces. I’ve had students whose parents were in prison or in rehab or in coffins. I’ve had students who lived in children’s shelters, on friends’ sofas, on Adderall and antidepressants. I’ve had students whose mothers fed them cocaine and methamphetamines in utero. I’ve had students whose fathers fed them knuckle sandwiches and nightmares in their homes last night.
How can you expect these kids to give a damn about Shakespeare and sonnets? And honestly — they can’t. Not yet. Not without trust. Not without security. Not without understanding. Not without love. Not even if you make it all relevant to them, to their lives, to their situations, to their struggles. Not even then. Not yet.
So you have to show them trust and security and understanding and love. You have to show them these things and be these things for your students. All of them. Even the hard ones. Especially the hard ones.
That’s the fundamentals of teaching that I don’t think a college classroom can teach you. But your own classroom absolutely will – if you’re willing to learn. If you’re willing to let your students teach you what they need. Until you’re willing to learn that, you are no Teacher. Books don’t teach you how to do that. Teaching teaches you that. And you can’t Teach until you can Do.
There’s an old Stevie Smith poem called “Not Waving but Drowning.” The first stanza ends like this:
I was much further out than you thought,
And not waving but drowning.
I use these two lines as my reminder to never get jaded, to never forget that just because my feelings get hurt and my ego gets bruised when a student shuns me or shouts at me or skulks around the corner and skips my class, that it’s not all about me. My bruises are nothing like his. My battles are nothing like hers.
My job is to hear and see my students. Not the cussing, not the insults, not the disrespect — I hear and see that just fine – but my students and their struggles. For while it’s all too easy to misinterpret their actions, most of those really, hard students (not all, but most) are not waving, but drowning. They aren’t being bad kids, they’re being lost kids — little, lost, overwhelmed, under-loved kids. That’s what I need to see and hear.
Drowning people panic and they can quickly pull you under, too. They don’t even understand what they’re doing. They just want out of the deep water and they’ll hurt anyone who comes close. They lash out as a defense. They writhe and flail and try to climb on top of you. They try to pull you down.
And there are some days your drowning students will get you down. You will feel underwater yourself. You will feel like you just can’t do it anymore. You just want to let go. To swim away. To let them fail. To let it be somebody else’s problem.
But don’t let go. Regroup and regrip and keep throwing out those life lines.
Show them they are worth saving from the flood of violence and hunger and abuse and pain and powerlessness that overwhelms them. Show them that they do not deserve to drown. They are not disposable.
They are valuable.
They matter more than the subject matter. More than Shakespeare and sonnets. More than state mandates and standardized tests. Teach them — not the subject, not the test — teach them.
When they learn that they matter, only then can they learn the subject matter. But be prepared to rinse and repeat — a lot. Like a whole, whole lot.
Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust themselves enough yet. Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust you enough yet. Remember who you’re working with. Remember what they’re working with. They will need lots of recognition, lots of reinforcement, lots of repetition. Until they absorb it. Until they understand that they are valuable and they matter.
Recognition. Reinforcement. Repetition. — The Real Three Rs of Education.