I haven’t posted in nearly 2 years. But after a few stressful weeks at work, I was inspired to write this when I got home today.
I read about teaching constantly in the news, and it doesn’t seem to reflect what I experience each day. It’s been increasingly frustrating to me. While it’s very difficult to express in words what a teacher’s day is like, I gave it an honest shot here (warning: there is a little bit of profanity).
What it truly means to be a teacher
12:45pm. I am teaching a 7th period class; we are focusing on the costs and benefits of British rule in India. The students are working on a t-chart on their own, referencing a textbook.
A girl in the front looks upset. Her eyes are glassy. She is finished the assignment far before the others because her reading level is on grade level while many of the students in the same class are still struggling at grammar-school reading levels (I teach 10th grade). She is drawing circles on her paper.
I know she was supposed to audition for the X-Factor, a TV show, yesterday; she had been excited about it for months. I heard through the grapevine that her dad wouldn’t let her go. I kneeled down. “Are you okay?”
Another student shouts from a few rows over: “Ms. D, I need you to show me my grade.” (Yesterday, as I tried to get him to start his work, he told me to shut the fuck up.)
I ignored him for a moment to see if he would notice I am mid-conversation with another student. She nods and says, “I’m fine” unconvincingly.
Again- “My grade Ms. D, I need to see my grade.”
“I’ll show you your grade after class- I’m trying to talk to another student right now.”
“I need to see it though,” he insists. “Is this good? Am I done?” He holds up his t-chart. I’m still kneeling in front of X-Factor girl as she absentmindedly traces the already-drawn circles on her paper.
“Ms. D,” another student shouts from across the room. “Can I stay after class and see my grade too?”
It’s been 1 minute.
1:01pm. We have 4 minutes in between classes and the bell has just rung to mark the end of 7th period. My 8th period class is honors-level and they are preparing for a debate. I need to move the desks from their standard position in rows to 2 large groups before too many students file in. I start in the back and manage to get 2 desks flipped around.
A girl runs in who should have been in my 7th period class but wasn’t. “I came to say bye, Ms. D. I’m not gonna be here anymore.” She’s standing by my desk at the front of the room.
“What?” I ask, not fully processing what she’s said.
“I’m not coming back,” she repeats.
I walk up to my desk. My 8th period has started to file in. “Guys, if you could group the desks into your 2 teams, please,” flitting my hand at them since I’ve been pulled aside.
“My foster mom kicked me out and I’m going to a homeless shelter,” the student continues. “I can’t go to this school from there.”
A student I advise in NHS comes in. “Ms. D, I need to see the papers I gave you earlier today- I think I stapled something to them that I wasn’t supposed to.”
I reach for the file of papers that I had put hers in earlier that day. “You can’t come to CHS still while you’re at the homeless shelter?” I’m flipping through the pages.
“No,” the homeless student says. “Ms. M says I can’t until I’m placed, then maybe I can get transportation.”
I hand the papers to the NHS student that she’s requested. “I need you to sign these- they’re from the donation drive,” she says. I put them on my desk and sign quickly, looking over them to make sure they are what she says they are.
I turn to the homeless student again, not sure even what to say. “Do you have paper? Will you keep in touch? Call me if you need anything? Please?” I write down my phone number for her.
NHS girl waves a paper in front of my face. “Do you need this to verify my hours?” I shake my head.
“Ms. D, I have a question!” calls a student from across the room. I walk over.
The bell rings for 8th period to begin. I turn around and the homeless girl has disappeared; I didn’t even get to truly say goodbye.
It’s been 4 minutes.
1:20pm. My honors students are in their teams, preparing for their debate. There was tension in this class yesterday; the teammates weren’t getting along well. One of my students approached me in the morning saying she felt as if her team was not taking her comments seriously.
I stood by her group to monitor what was going on, redirecting them. “Did you hear Bridget’s idea?”
Yelling erupts from the other team. “Ms. D, can we split into 3 teams? They can just be their own team?”
I kneel and quickly tell Bridget I’ll be back in a moment to check in. I walk over to the other team. “No,” I say, keeping my eye on the first team to make sure no one is shunning Bridget again. “What’s the issue here?”
Two team members start yelling at each other about what roles they are choosing to play in the debate. “He said he was going to do the closing statement and now he wants to do the main argument just because his friend is doing the main argument!” one girl yells.
“I need you to calm down,” I said, motioning my hands downward as if to imitate lowering her voice. “Yelling at your teammates is disrespectful.”
The teammate responds just as aggressively: “They came up with the main arguments yesterday after they yelled at me so I didn’t know I wanted to do it!” I put my hand out to him as well and remind them that if we are going to have a conversation it needs to be done at the appropriate level. Both my hands are out when a student asks me to use the restroom; out of my other ear, I hear the other team calling for me again.
It’s been 2 minutes.
1:50pm. The bell rings for the end of the day. One student from 8th period is hanging around my desk and asking about missed work; I stand over my desktop to make sure I put in attendance from 8th period and check my e-mail from the day. Another student is lingering by the desks.
A girl walks in that I have earlier in the day. After her class had ended, she had stuck around for a bit longer than normal suggesting that she wanted to talk about things, so I told her to come after school. She seemed reluctant, like she wanted to talk but she was embarrassed to. I insisted she come.
As she walked in, she saw other students were in the room and began to back out. She waved at me hesitantly.
The student lingering by the desks comes up to me with a paper in his hand. “Can you hang on a moment?” I ask him and rush after the girl.
“Hey, is everything okay?” I ask her. She is continuing to walk but doesn’t say anything. I stop and let her keep walking. “If it’s not, I’ll be here,” I call after her.
I go back in the room. “Sorry,” I say to the lingering student. He asks about an upcoming assignment and I explain to him that it’s been postponed due to scheduling conflicts.
Another teacher walks in. “Do you have extra colored pencils?” I’m walking to get them when the girl comes back and quietly sits down in the back of the room. I have a pile of essays that I need to grade, but I know I’m going to be counseling this student through her life issues for the next hour or so.
I wanted to write out these snapshots of my day to try and illustrate the type of stress that teachers deal with on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis. I don’t think that these snapshots accurately portray what is actually going on in my classroom and the split-second decisions I am constantly making. I also do not want to try to put the stress of teachers above others- it is not a competition. I’m sure being a surgeon, or a financial adviser, or serving at a restaurant is stressful, too.
However, the types of situations that teachers need to juggle every moment of everyday vary so widely that I’m not sure people outside of the classroom understand fully what it truly means to be a teacher: I don’t get to school a few minutes before it begins, teach my lessons and go home (today, in fact, I was there from 6:30am to 4:30pm- the school day runs from 7 to 2).
I’m trying to fill out a request for copies as a student is discussing her Facebook-friend-drama with me.
I’m writing out a library pass while on the phone with a counselor trying to arrange a time to call DYFS since one of my students implied abuse at home; another student is asking me to go to the bathroom and another has their hand up with a question about the assignment they are working on.
I have to teach about the crisis in Darfur or the Industrial Revolution while a student is sitting there worried about her mother selling her (the student’s) body away in exchange for drugs.
I’m handing a student a quiz about the French Revolution, but she complains to me that she hasn’t eaten in the past 24 hours due to conflict with her family.
One student is asking me to check their work while I catch another breaking into tears across the room. I try to pull him into the hallway; the phone starts to ring- the office needs a student who’s out at the bathroom. “Send her as soon as she’s back,” they say.
I’m finishing grading an essay when the bell rings to mark the end of my prep period. I hear students yelling in the hallway- “Well FUCK HER! I’m gonna get that bitch,” and see a student fly by. I run out the room and down the hallway to stop a potential fight. 3 minutes later, the bell rings and I’m calmly asking my class to take their seats and start their warm up question, my heart still racing.
In between my lessons on Napoleon, I’m trying to contact the appropriate administrators because I’m pretty sure one of my study hall students has weed on him with the intent to sell to others. Later that same day, in the midst of creating a quiz after school, I find a knife in a bag a student left behind.
All of these anecdotes are true, and just bits and pieces of my last 3 years in teaching. My purpose in these anecdotes is to show as I am trying to succeed in teaching history to my students— and going through the day-to-day procedures of planning, grading, and creating that goes along with it— I am dealing with true issues. My students don’t come to school ready and eager to learn, most of the time; they come from homes with no electricity, they come hungry, they come beaten and tired, if they are even coming from a place they can call home.
In between grading papers, I am counseling. In between answering questions, I am policing. While I am trying to teach them to write a thesis statement, they are worried about being bullied on Facebook. I am managing students that are often cursing me off and walking away while I must remain professional- and try to make sure the rest of my class is still on task.
While you vilify teachers, please remember what we do outside of having summers off and providing your children an education (although I think that is an important enough job). I am making sure your child is emotionally sound, safe from drugs and weapons, and learning, while simultaneously managing 25 other students who need to go to the bathroom, who have a question about the lesson, who are trying to hand in their late work, who are asking to see their grades (who I will also monitor to make sure they are emotionally sound, safe from drugs and weapons, and learning…)
I have cried for your children. I have fed your children. I have taught your students lessons about current events, about writing, about life. I have been hugged in return. Cursed off in return. Sometimes, I get a thank you, but not often.
I do this all day, every day, all at once.
So as you complain about teachers who are overpaid and working few hours, please remember what it truly means to be a teacher.