You know that kind of bone-tired you feel after babysitting someone else's high maintenance toddler for more than 48 hours, or after finishing all your last minute gift shopping before Christmas Eve only to have to wade back into the fray thanks to that well-intentioned coworker who so sweetly surprised you with an unexpected gift, or right after you've carried the last box into a new home at the end of moving day? I'm there. I'm past there. I'm in the realm of just-survived-my-own-wedding, my-feet-hurt-so-badly-I-can't-move, I-hope-I-don't-fall-asleep-typing-and-lose-this-whole-blog-post tired. I am in the throes of flat out exhaustion, and there are at least three million other folks out there around the U.S. who know exactly how I'm feeling and why.
We're teachers, and we just survived the first week of school.
Don't worry -- I'm not here to complain about it! I want to tell you why it's all worth it -- and how you can make it even better this year.
First, you need to know what I do; "teacher" is a big category, after all. I teach high school seniors at a public school near Jackson, Miss. It's a small school and I have all the school's seniors for two classes: senior English and Capstone, which is a college preparatory course. In this case that's literal; I team up with another teacher to prepare all our school's seniors for college or whatever jobs they will pursue after high school. We have one year in which to cram in as many of the topics that high school teachers always want to teach or at least need to teach but rarely have time for in our overcrowded curriculum: interviewing, resume-writing, public speaking, budgeting, college searching and applications, scholarship preparations, community service, job shadowing -- right down to how to send a polite email and avoid that reviled "dead fish" handshake.
Most days, I think it's the best job in the world.
It's also a terribly lonely job at times. I share a vignette here and there on Facebook, but for the most part, I let school absorb every bit of my energy and my voice. After I shut and lock my door at 7:31 every morning, it's just me and a bunch of stressed out, hormonal, energetic, sullen, impatient, well-intentioned teenagers for at least the next seven hours. They are awe-inspiring and they keep me young, but they are also all 17. I go entire days without speaking a word to an adult (despite my students' insistence that they are, in fact, adults). I also go entire days without taking any time to reflect on what just took place in my little cinder block kingdom.
When I emerge semi-stunned into the afternoon sunlight and make my long drive home, I usually sit in complete silence. Even the radio can be too much noise after the day's cacophony of voices. When I get home I spend most of my evening planning, writing lessons, grading and emailing students. Again, I'm not complaining; it's addictive to be a teacher. I love it when my seniors realize that I care about them enough to answer their emails at 10 p.m. I love it when they learn to trust me and bring me their problems so that I can help them find their answers. After all, there is no better feeling than being needed, and teenagers can be a very needy bunch.
Still, it's the first week of school, I'm well past tired, and already the year is beginning to fly by like it always does -- a blur of days with most of their joyful and poignant and important moments buried and forgotten under the sheer weight of all the work that is always just around the corner. I rarely find the time to share the wonder with anyone, and that brings me back to my initial point. As a teacher, I know my students hear me (after all, they are a captive audience!), but my own generation doesn't. The "real world" doesn't. I walk into the public, grown-up world brimming with insight, with ideas, with knowledge -- and no one wants to hear me. Many of my own peers assume I must have no shred of intellectualism or I would never have become a teacher. At best they'll listen to my "teacher stories," and everyone knows we teachers collect some great ones, but my life purpose is not just to collect outlandish stories. I -- and all my colleagues locked in their own classrooms -- ache to share a little bit of ourselves with the world beyond the usual "Should we pay them more?" and "Are they actually doing their jobs?" debates. Teachers need a voice, and we need it desperately, but it often feels like our culture has no space for us.
Did I mention that I'm not here to complain? I'm really not. I just want tell you about my world. I hope we can make a deal. I will commit to telling you a little something about what happens in my classroom every week, all its intellectual challenges and emotional excitements and heartbreaking moments, from August through May. No matter how tired I am, I will share this place with you until May 16, 2016, when "my" seniors in the class of 2016 graduate and I shut my door until the next year. I hope you will find our journey through this senior year as fascinating as I know I will.
As of today, one week in, I can see the beginnings of what are sure to be some good stories. On the first day of school last week, I asked my students to fill out surveys and write down any questions or thoughts they had for me. I barely know them yet, but it's a beginning. Just from the survey snapshot below, I know this senior is so worried about doing things wrong that he answered number 18 by referring to me as both ma'am and sir (I'm really not sure how to take that). I also know no one has ever effectively taught him how to spell "ma'am," but I also know that his mama probably taught him to be respectful because he wrote it out anyway. Then there's number 17, where I asked what he wants to learn about and he wrote, "Really just what all out there in the world." That's what makes teenagers amazing; they are open to anything. The whole world is still unexplored for them and they are so excited to experience it...
... but they are also really, really scared:
Luckily, I brought in my old college couch for them to cry on when needed, and we will all get through this year together -- and hopefully all be a little bit wiser for having done so:
Teaching is, at its core, just the act of listening and learning. There is a great deal to be learned from teenagers, and I hope you will allow me to share what I learn from them this year with you!