In college, I majored in Mathematics and minored in Secondary Education. I often complained about the fact that I felt the Mathematics degree was ridiculous because there is no way I would teach anything past Calculus, and yet here I was, taking lots and lots of classes way past calculus. You thought Geometry proofs were awful? Well let me tell you about Real Analysis multi-page proofs! Actually I won’t do that because I think even my dad would stop reading my blog at that point and Papa G LOVES my blog. I felt like I should be taking education classes that better prepared me to be the teacher I had dreamed I would be instead of theoretical math classes.
Well fast forward four (?!) years since its completion and the mathematics degree is one of my proudest accomplishments. The whole reason I decided to become a teacher was because math had not come easily to me, but with the help of some incredible teachers, I learned to love the struggle. And let me tell you, in the college level mathematics courses, the struggle was real. Here’s a shout out to the professors who didn’t slam their doors when they saw me coming, the people who let me join their study groups even though all I ever could usually contribute was snacks and the occasional math pun, and the strangers who didn’t stare too long when I was crying in the library.
It didn’t take too long in my education classes for me to figure out, for the most part, that they also were not adequately preparing me to be the teacher of my dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my college experience and my education professors were awesome. But I think at the end of the day, there is no way to teach what happens in the classroom until you are in it (and probably over your head in it). Most of my education classes involved a heck of a lot of writing of formal lesson plans. Let me tell you, the last time I wrote a formal lesson plan was first semester of my senior year of college. We talked a lot in my education classes about an ideal school set-up with ideal students, all coming to school fed, bathed, and supported at home. I think teachers are an idealistic group of people and no one wants to crush that in college. The place I learned the most was when I was put into field placements with teachers who didn’t sugarcoat the business. I also had a professor who wanted us to know what we were getting ourselves into, and it was the best thing she ever could have done for her students (shout out Dr. S). She shared her own experiences from teaching. She had us read books about how awful some days, weeks, months, and years of teaching might be, but also how rewarding it could be. She put us in observation placements that would challenge us. She brought in former students who were now teaching to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. And she did it with a passion that got most of her students more excited about their future careers.
Even so, there was no way anyone truly could have prepared me for all that teaching would involve, although I appreciate all that tried, because they made sure I knew that there was truly no way to know what I was getting myself into.
I often say that I forget how weird my job is until I’m casually telling someone about my day and they ask if things like that happen every single day. In some ways, you become immune to the weirdness that is spending your days with teenagers. What I have yet to become immune to, and hope I never do, is the toll that teaching can take on your heart. But no one could have prepared me for it all or how to love kids through it all. If you’re looking for a job that repeatedly rips your heart out of your chest and smashes it on the ground, then teaching might just be for you!
My first real wake-up call with this was while I was student teaching. I completed my student teaching, as well as my first two years of teaching in an urban school district. It was a whole new world from where I had gone to high school. I was working individually with a student when she showed me her gunshot wound. The way she said it, it was almost as if she expected me to show her mine. She had been caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs when she was younger.
My first year of teaching was filled with wake-up calls of how truly blessed I had grown up. Many of my students were homeless, abused, orphaned. They had lost family and friends in tragic ways. I remember hearing about a young man in a neighboring town being shot, only to discover it was the friend of one of my students the next morning. No one can teach you what to say to make that okay.
The summer between my first and second year of teaching, I lost a student to suicide. I received the phone call on a Sunday morning and had never been quite so grateful that I didn’t have to stand in front of a group of teenagers the next day to try to provide them answers and comfort because I had none. No one can teach you how to do that.
After two years, I left urban education and accepted at a job in a suburb very much like the town I grew up in. There were lots of reasons behind the change, but one of the big ones was because my heart needed a break from the hurt. It did not take long for me to learn that no matter where I was, I would never truly be prepared for all of the things I would face as a teacher.
On the second day of school at my new job, the police thwarted a school attack plan and school was cancelled as they searched the school from top to bottom (twice) to ensure students and staff were safe. When we returned, staff had an emergency meeting, we read the district provided response, guidance counselors and a crisis team were in place, and we tried to resume activities as normal as possible. A few weeks later, we were put on lock down for a possible threat that fortunately turned out to be nothing. At the beginning of this year, we were again put on lock down for over an hour. The next day, I had a tough conversation with my classes about how they felt about an event like that. We had a big conversation about making sure we never accept our personal safety being threatened as “just a thing that happens.” I was proud of how they handled the situation and the mature conversations that they had, but I never want them to think it is commonplace. Nothing can ever fully prepare you to be teaching the quadratic formula one moment while being prepared to protect your students the next.
My students have lost parents, had loved ones diagnosed with awful diseases, and dealt with community tragedies. I have cried over my email and after conversations with students and staff on many occasions knowing how much my students hearts must be hurting, wondering how I am supposed to explain this sometimes cruel and harsh world to them and alleviate just a little bit of the pain for them in any way that I can.
I took classes on classroom management and child psychology. I’ve had enough professional development in Common Core and assessment practices to last me a lifetime. Wondering how to integrate technology into your classroom? There’s a workshop for that. However, there is no teacher preparation program that can teach you all about the ways the world will hurt your kids. There is no training about how to love on kids when life is hard and the world is cruel. There is no magical combination of words you can say to make things okay for them. All you can do is your best to be human and love them, and in my experience, I’ve learned that that is enough.