I Used to be a High School English Teacher

Last week I got a letter from HR asking me to let them know ASAP what my post-maternity-leave plans were. I’d taken unpaid leave for the rest of the school year (after my paid leave ran out), but planned to return to coaching for the spring track season. In my heart, I’d already decided what I wanted to do, and I thought the spring track season would be a good test run. I’d coach, write as much as possible during Thea’s naps, and take an extended time away from teaching.

I’m working on a longer essay about what (many) factors have changed how I feel about teaching. The most (er–only) positive factor is Thea. I’m trying to work through the ways in which issues specific to my district (a wealthy suburban district where there’s a lot of stress on the kids and a lot of parental involvement that often crosses the line into threatening), and which issues are really problems with the nature of teaching nationwide. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the archetype of the savior-teacher on the one hand and the bitter, burned-out, union-supported lazy teacher on the other hand.

This teacher-as-selfless-martyr narrative is everywhere–Dead Poets’ SocietyDangerous MindsFreedom Writers… all movies that made me cry and also kind of made me feel sick at the same time. When I was a brand new teacher, unsure of how exactly to make a rubric, how to explain what was wrong with a thesis statement on Of Mice and Men that read “Lennie likes to touch soft things, but that’s not his fault. He just wants to relax,” how to control unruly fifteen-year-old boys, the one thing I did feel confident I could do was passionately care about my students. I remember seeing some meme on Facebook that a teacher is a mom, a therapist, a coach, a friend… and thinking yeah! That’s right! 

But, it really shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society since you were a kid you might not remember that Mr. Keating (the Robin Williams character) is living in his high school dorm’s faculty apartment, gazing longingly at a photograph of the love of his life who got away. He explains that he loves her (after telling the boys they must seize the day) but couldn’t leave Dalton. My first few years of teaching, I doubtlessly did rely on personal relationships with students, on my demonstrable investment in their education and emotional well-being, to make up for what I lacked in efficiency and experience. In some ways, those were the best years of teaching. I cried in the first PPT I attended, and, unaware, that the teacher is typically supposed to speak minimally (for fear of lawsuits) rattled on about the potential I saw in the student. I formed the strongest and most lasting relationships with my students. I’m still in touch with a lot of those kids. The other day I found a tee-shirt the first AP class I ever taught made to wear to the exam. It’s full of jokes about Lord Byron and characters from The Grapes of Wrath. We kept a class blog that I monitored diligently at night. Kids told me their parents told them they were blogging too much. Returning to their laptops too often to defend an argument about Roger Chillingworth’s evil nature or Gertrude Stein’s poetry.

It’s had to articulate what about this was bad. And not all of it was. But, like Mr. Keating, I was alone and far too invested in the world of my school. I had trouble sleeping when I worried about a student going through a difficult time. I was often at school until seven, even eight o’clock counseling a handful of kids. I started to remind myself of Jean Brodie in the worst way. With a little “set” of students who felt like my team much more than my colleagues or administrators did. I was lonely, afraid I’d never meet anyone. Grateful to love my job. I was also mitigating that loneliness and fear with misplaced feelings of duty. I am not trained to be a psychologist. I am not a mother, nor should I behave as a friend to my students.

I’ve thought often of that Facebook meme over the years and tried to figure out what it is about it that bothers me so much. It’s not that I don’t see how a teacher could see himself that way. And it’s not that I don’t think it could ever be helpful to intervene in an unconventional, non-academic way. But to frame the respect teachers deserve in terms of the sacrifices they make in their personal lives rather than in the expertise they have in their subjects and in education is problematic. It also sets up a system where the kind of people who are prone to obsessing over what others think of them and a desire to please work tirelessly to be everything to their schools, making up for what teachers don’t earn in salary and in respect from the community with self-important notions of martyrdom.

In the years since that first AP class, my life has changed and my teaching style has changed. I’d like to believe that I’m capable of enough honest reflection to say truly that I remained caring and compassionate. But. I met my husband. I started to make friends in the area. I spent more time with my family. I got married. I grew frustrated with semi-annual blowouts with parents over three-hundredths of a percentage point. I sat through insulting professional development session after insulting professional development session. I tried to make the best of new initiatives. And then these initiatives were abandoned for other initiatives. Which were abandoned for other initiatives. And with them, hours of work.

When I first started teaching, I’d go to school even when I was really sick because I had this sort of self-absorbed notion that no sub could do my class justice. I had each period packed as full as possible of close reading and writing conferences and to miss even one day seemed more work than it was worth. Everything–every lesson, every chapter of every book I assigned–mattered so much to me. The stakes felt so high.

I had forgotten I felt that way until I had Thea. And then, once again the stakes feel so high. She’s sitting here next to me in her swing listening to some classical music, yawning, babbling, fighting a nap, occasionally smiling or furrowing her brow. After every few sentences I look over hoping to see she’s fallen asleep (she’s not much of a napper, but she’s been awake for more than three hours at this point), and have a rapid-fire internal debate about if letting her swing herself to sleep is the right thing.

Although my husband and I had already discussed and decided what I’d do before I received the letter from HR, my response to the letter surprised me. I nearly ripped it out of his hands. I fired off my resignation with the same enthusiasm I had once signed my first teaching contract. It’s both sad and a little jarring to see something that once so defined me become something I’m so eager to leave behind. Although there were some ways in which my changing attitude about teaching was obvious to me–measurable changes like the number of hours I spent at school made that clear–Thea’s birth painted my fierce devotion to her in sharp contrast to the way I’d come to feel about work.

For the next while, I’m going to continue coaching–something I actually missed enough on maternity leave that I returned to it before I’d committed to. And writing. I have a lot of projects underway but far from finished and I want to give them a chance to go somewhere.

3 Replies to “I Used to be a High School English Teacher”

  1. I think being a teacher is very tough and the amount of work you have to do is staggering. For most students, teachers are their tickets to a better life in a way as they are the ones who help us earn our grades. And in most cases, students are generally very appreciative. But I know how tiring it is for teachers and the fatigue cannot be erased just by hearing compliments and gratitude. It just doesn’t work that way. Yes, you feel more appreciated and have the motivation to carry on but in reality, I think that the mind is already suffering from a lack of proper rest.

    After reading how much you do for your students, I think you made the right choice in choosing to ease yourself back in via coaching. Teachers don’t only contribute to the academic development of students, but also their mental wellness as well. It’s beyond their jobscope. So I guess on behalf of all students, thanks for being such a dedicated teacher 🙂

  2. I wish we lived closer so we could hang out with our kiddos and discuss this in person over coffee. I’ve had some of the same internal struggles over the past few years, and some different, but all with the basic undertones that you mentioned. You made a great decision, and I’m happy you’re still able to coach and do something you’re passionate about!

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