You may or may not know that about half of all teachers quit within their first five years. I remember in one of my early college Education classes having a professor basically try to talk us out of teaching. He told us how exhausted we would be. He told us all of the jobs that would pay us better ( spoiler alert: it's a whole lot ). He made careers I had never given a second thought to, namely truck driving and garbage pickup, sound appealing. He told us that more likely than not, we wouldn't make it. He didn't do this to be mean, but rather to be realistic and honest. I wondered if I would make it. Part of me was sure I would: I am a bull-headed, stubborn, determined person, and I've always wanted to be a teacher. But, there's no telling in life, right? Maybe I wouldn't make it.
Knowing the five year statistic, starting this year felt strangely and arbitrarily important to me. So, on this last week of my 5th year of teaching, I want to reflect on some milestones for me. Not just to memorialize what happened but also to relate (if you're a teacher) or maybe educate (if you're not).
In year one, I had one of the hardest groups of students that have come through our school--many people told me that and the phrase "trial by fire" was thrown around a lot. I ended up really loving that class but I'd be lying if I said they went easy on me; they did not. In many ways, I'm grateful for that because it tested me, made me work hard, and I learned a lot. At the same time, it was definitely a year of wondering if I could really do it.
In the last five years I've been the keeper of hearts and secrets. Students have told me stories of rape, suicide, depression, anxiety, loss, death, neglect, sorrow, heartbreak, struggle, and resilience. I've learned the value of listening and sitting with someone. I've learned that life is more than content, that my job is more than teaching spelling, grammar, reading, or english.
When one of my students died my second year of teaching, I knew my role had to be being there for my students. I did the only thing I knew how: I baked cookies and I was honest. When I got to homeroom, of which he was a member, I passed out cookies and looked at my students. I didn't put on a brave face. I told them they were all important, that even though it wasn't the same for me as it was for them that I felt this loss with them, that, even though it seemed impossible, we would get through this, and that I was there for them. I was 22 and I didn't know crap, but I showed up anyway and I tried.
What's important to me, and hopefully to my students, is that in the last five years that's what I've done: showed up and tried. In five years, I had three years of perfect attendance. Of course, I don't have kids and I do have a wonderful, very helpful husband, but this year I taught 5 classes, spent a lot of nights and weekends grading and responding to student work, took two graduate classes ( or three if you could the one I started in the last month and a half of school ), edited the high school yearbook, managed the JHS webpage, ran an at risk committee that I made homemade, gluten free baked goods for every 7am meeting, joined two committees and attended those meetings, and of course also got colds and did not feel well at times from my stomach illness, and dealt with personal issues and stress. Even so, I went to school every. single. day. I'm not saying that to brag ( well, kind of ), rather I am very, very proud of doing all of that and still showing up every day because despite whatever failings I may have now or have had in these last few years being a new teacher, I've shown up and I've tried.
I've realized my job is getting to know a person's heart, dreams, skills, needs, and fears for 8 months and then never seeing them again. My job is holding on when I don't want to and letting go when I have to. My job is a sometimes a teacher, sometimes a friend, sometimes a mentor, sometimes an advocate, sometimes a guidance counselor, sometimes a parent, and all the time a champion of all of my students, even when it's hard, even when I want to quit, even when they've insulted me, even when I'm tired, even when no one, not even them, appreciates it.
Teaching is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Middle school is a time of intense personal struggle for most people and I watch it play out in front of me daily--in mean words and hurtful comments, friend politics, awkward crushes, physical fights, and stories students have written or told to me about how hard life can be. Through it all, I've realized one thing:
People are more resilient than we ever dare to believe.
You see, I've laid awake nights wondering how these students, these people I am entrusted to care for, will make it through. How can they survive when their best friends die by suicide or car accidents, when the hardest parts of life like rape, depression, alcoholism, and poverty show themselves, when they lose hope in themselves and their futures, when they don't have anyone as their champions, or when they just don't care about school? I've wondered how I would make it last year when we lost my husband's father. His death was a tremendous loss to our whole family and it left a gaping hole in our lives.
But the truth is, we are more resilient than we dare to let ourselves believe. I've seen students write beautiful poems and pieces about the friends and family they've lost, I've seen students turn their lives around, I've watched people, myself included, dig out of dark situations and come back stronger. Somehow we let ourselves believe that we are not strong, that life can beat us down, that we will never recover, but, while we'll never be the same, we will come back, we will carry on. Teaching has given me so many gifts but to me the greatest one of all is seeing people do such incredible things. Teaching has taught me that we are all stronger and better than we dare to believe; we just need to start paying attention to it.