Ten Years of Teaching

This week I wrapped up my tenth year teaching. As these things always do, those ten years feel like both ten minutes and ten lifetimes, all at once.

I think my ten-years-ago-self would be proud if she could see me now... I was so young and scared when I started teaching! My student teaching experience was mostly horrific. (Except for, tellingly, the ESL part... Thanks, Glori!) By the time I earned my teaching degree, I wasn't sure I wanted it anymore. I really didn't know if I had w hat it takes to be a teacher. I knew I lacked a lot of skills, and wasn't sure my best efforts would be enough to pick them up. But what else do you do with a brand new teaching degree? Especially when the last two years of your education was paid for with a grant, contingent on your agreement to teach for at least four years? So I got myself a teaching job...

I thank God regularly that I landed at Whitford! I did have a LOT of growing to do as a teacher, but in its wacky way, Whitford gave me what I needed. I spent my first year in the cave we call C15, lacking both windows and walls, and I can't imagine a better place for my first year. I shared very tight quarters with Betsy and Jake, and spent my time soaking up as much mentoring and wisdom as I could squeeze out of them. I made a shameless nuisance of myself by asking a million questions a day, but probably learned the most from just watching them teach and interact with kids. We also managed to have SO MUCH FUN all of the time. I don't think there's ever been a team of teachers at Whitford that has more FUN at work than we did! Thank goodness I learned quickly that teaching is supposed to be fun. It's one of the easiest barometers to measure how my classes are going. As long as I'm having fun, something must be going right. :)

The other best possible thing for my professional development happened that year--the equity team was born. I didn't know why I was going to that very first meeting of the equity team; I mostly just went because Betsy told me to. (And truly, "because Betsy said so" is reason enough to do things.:)) Then I kept going because I realized how much I had to learn. I talked as little as possible during those first few years of meetings. I was just soaking it in and thinking deeply. I learned to see and hear more clearly. I found the courage to engage in hard conversations. I became the teacher that my kids needed me to be--one who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but can help them navigate the complexities of race, culture, marginalization, etc. I learned how to make my classroom a safe space, and myself a safe person. I’ll forever be refining those traits and skills, but I’m so grateful that I started my career in that ideal learning space. And with all the things that have come and gone in ten years, I’m grateful the equity team still stands! I’ve needed that group of people more than ever this year.

That first year, the 6th grade classes were the highlight to my day. They were new and lost and scared and hopeful, just like me! We grew up at Whitford together. By the time they were in 8th grade, our third year together, they’d claimed such a gigantic place in my heart! It wasn’t the exact same group of kids of course--plenty had moved in and out during those three years. But it still felt like a sweet little ELD family, and I truly enjoyed being with them every day. I remember that last day of school, year three, crying my eyes out. It’s always hard to say goodbye at the end of the year, particularly to the 8th graders. But that year, I wondered if I would ever love another class as much as that one. They were my first group that I’d spent three years with. Did that make them irreplaceably special? Were they just a uniquely amazing group of kids? How often would I get a group of kids I enjoyed that much? Would I be disappointed in future years? Would it make me a bad teacher if I had favorite classes? The questions all seem silly, but I was legitimately (secretly) concerned!

I don’t worry about those things anymore. It turns out that learning how to teach, meant learning how to love. I don't remember that being covered in teacher school! But I've found that the kind of love required to do what I do, isn't simple, easy, rainbows-and-butterflies. Instead, it requires me to stretch in ways younger-me couldn’t have dreamed of. I know that I’ve been described before with words like tender-hearted, soft, sensitive… and those words usually seem to carry a connotation of weakness. But now I know that I’m all of those things, and I’m strong. Because stretching my heart to all the places my kids take it, requires incredible strength. I’ve found that my own capacity to love is much bigger than I imagined.

I’ve learned to love kids who come from completely different worlds than me.

I’ve learned to read the most challenging behaviors as a kid asking to be loved, even if they don't know that's what they're asking for.

I've learned to be generous with my love--if there are strings attached, then it isn't love, it's something else.

I've learned that love demands vulnerability.

I've learned to try a million different ways of sharing love, until I hit on the one that a particular kid is able to receive.

I've learned that love usually requires investing some time. And there's no better investment.

I've learned that love can be transformative.

I've learned that love doesn't always lead to the hoped for transformation. But I think that even then, it still matters. I hope it does.

I've learned to love loudly. Sometimes I have to get in someone's face.

I've learned to love quietly. Sometimes physical presence is the only gift I can offer.

I've learned to let God tell me how to love. He knows what the kids need better than I do.

I've learned that kids test your love. They test boundaries, they test rules, and they test love. I'm getting better at recognizing those tests when they're put in front of me.

I've learned that kids will usually let me retake the test if I don't pass it the first time. It's ok to revisit a situation and admit that I didn't handle it the way I should have.

I've learned to love with laughter.

I've learned to love fiercely.

I've learned to love stubbornly.

I've learned to love patiently.

I've learned that discipline and love work a hundred times better together.

Looking back, my first ten years of learning to teach more effectively, were all about learning how to love better. It was right there under the surface all along, but this year got me thinking more intentionally and deeply about this love stuff. A student who survived a great deal of childhood trauma and missed out on attaching to a parent when he was young, straight up asked me “What is love?” I feel like we both learned a lot as we explored that question through the rest of the year…. At first, I felt so inadequate to help him navigate something so profound and so fundamental. I still feel inadequate. But we don't take on these challenges because we're ready for them. We take them on because we're there. And because love.

I can (and will!) spend days telling you about the problems in my profession. Mostly, it would fall under three umbrellas--the lack of time, money, and respect. And I don’t want to downplay any of those issues, because they’re real, they’re driving away incredibly talented teachers, and they’re hurting our kids.

I badly want to see improvement in all of those areas, because the truth is, I wouldn’t rather be doing anything but teaching. It’s pretty uniquely wonderful that when I go to work every day, I get to spend time with people I love. Plenty of people work with people they like, people they enjoy, people they appreciate. But I wonder how common it is to spend your workday surrounded by people you love? I’m lucky to have amazing colleagues that I count among my nearest and dearest. But even if every one of them went away and were replaced by a horrible monster, I’d still have my kids. And after ten years, I’m confident that there’s no such thing as a class I can’t love.

This is where I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to wrap up year ten with a neat little bow of warm fuzzies. But, unfortunately, I started teaching in 2007, which means I hit year ten in 2017. And nothing is simple or sweet in 2017. As I closed out my teaching year, Republicans revealed their latest plan to get rid of Medicaid. They’ve been coming up with these schemes since before I was born, of course. But they’ve never been more set up to succeed than they are right now. In preparation for federal cuts, plenty of states are already cutting off people like me from services. If that happens to me, I literally don’t have a way to get out of bed and into my wheelchair in the morning. My greatest fear--being locked up in some care facility--could easily become my reality. It could be coming sooner than later. And then I won’t get to teach anymore.

I know a lot of incredible educators who are finishing a very rough year and asking themselves, “Can I keep teaching? Can I really keep doing this?” And a part of me is wondering the same. But, unfortunately, I’m more worried about, “What if I don't get to keep teaching? What if I’m not allowed? Then what?”