You have three minutes until the bell rings to start the school day. Usually you are in your classroom setting up at this point, but today, someone broke the copier again. Creating a class set of instructions became a fifteen-minute waiting game of stress while you begged for emergency copies in the front office. Plus, you left your coffee on your desk. As you power walk down the hallway to your classroom, you will pass a restroom.
You observe two students locked in a passionate embrace in the hallway. Typically, you overlook a short kiss, but this is not short. In fact, you’re pretty sure there is tongue involved, and upon closer inspection—Oh! Oh no! Pelvic movement. DISASTER.
You teach sixteen-year-olds. You have teenager down to a science. You speak teenager, read teenager, and reason with teenagers. In fact, sometimes the teenagers treat you more like one of them than a teacher. As a result, your classroom after school has somehow become the meeting ground for stinky football players looking to avoid practice drills in the name of “tutoring.” You do teach these kids but the smell is ridiculous and so is the drain on your time.
It’s the holidays, and you are the recipient of numerous baked goods from well-intentioned students. You appreciate the gesture, but as each hand-baked gift is delivered, children stare at you with expectant eyes. They want to see you try it, and they want to know you enjoyed the gift. They will not leave satisfied until you have eaten at least a little.
To accomodate teenage hormones and school dress codes, you dress at least twenty years older than other people your age. Over the years, your closet has gradually filled with spirit shirts, unflattering crew neck business casual wear, and a slew of pants with as much stretch as possible paired with orthopaedic shoes. Why then are you conducting a writing conference with a student that is intent on staring at your chest?
You conduct an exercise with your Creative Writing class called, “If You Really Knew Me.” This exercise is emotional, but it brings students together and teaches them to judge one another less while learning to appreciate each other’s efforts more. It’s needed, but the kids cry. They share dark things. You warn the school counselors ahead of time. Early in the exercise, a student begins to cry and comes to you, sinks to the ground, rests their head on your knee, and sobs. The class continues working silently, writing. Ambient music plays so no one hears them. How should you proceed?
Let the child cry on your knee. You want to hug them and ask them what is wrong, but you know you can’t hug a student. In fact, you shouldn’t let them touch you at all. If an assistant principal walks in, this scene will look bad. But the kid is so sad; you cannot bring yourself to send them away. So you let them hiccup with their head on your knee and watch the door in fear.
Smile at them in sympathy, get them some tissues, and tell them that if they need a minute to get some air in the hallway that’s okay. Tell them they should see their counselor. Watch them blink at you with wide, teary eyes. Why are you sending them away? Because you have to, you think. Because you are not their mother. Because liability is a terrible thing that protects with unfeeling viciousness.
Allow the mother in you to take over. You have adopted “reckless” teacher behavior. Damn the rules. You are human. They are human. Since when is humanity a sin? Hug the child. If this were your kid, you’d want them to feel comforted. Hold their hand and let them cry themself out. Ignore your spouse when you go home emotionally spent and fall asleep on the couch
Distance yourself fast. “Whoa there kiddo, that’s a little close.” You’d rather be a bitch than get arrested. At some point in your career it became essential to put this wall up. You built it out of necessity, but sometimes you wonder if you accidentally shut your soul up in there, too. Oh well. Let the kid’s parents handle it.
You have explained to your classes that you are required to report any worrisome information, but despite knowing this fact, kids voice their agonies. Chris, a frequent flyer in your classroom, has taken to coming to you after school for tutoring and “just to talk.” They are bright, funny, and intelligent, and you grow to enjoy their company. When they tell you they are fascinated by the idea of killing themselves one afternoon, it is a total surprise. You do not have the option of staying quiet and the counselors have gone home for the day. Do you …
Arrive for your annual Professional Development and Appraisal System evaluation (PDAS—teachers love acronyms) with your assigned administrator. This meeting is your only official opportunity to prove your worth. It’s almost the end of the teaching year, which means it is also testing season and printing time for the school literary magazine, another one of your responsibilities. You have precious little energy left in reserve. Attempt to look at ease as you listen to your evaluator discuss your performance. Receive a stunning compliment. “You are a good teacher.” How do you react?
Beam. Creating a three-inch binder documenting your parent correspondence, lesson plans, team contributions, and extracurricular positions has paid off! Feel validated and exit your meeting in a rush. You have another class to teach, haven’t eaten yet today, and need to run by the office to check your box. Regret wearing heels and remind yourself to buy pants with more stretch when you get your next paycheck.
Smile and nod. You know what you are doing and you deserve this acknowledgement. Feel a little less special when your evaluator describes your work as “proficient” in all categories. You deserve “exceeds expectations” but know better than to push. Full recognition takes an act of God and at least you got a compliment this year. Tell yourself you are content with these results.
Cry. Struggle to hold in the tears and utterly fail. Compliments are few and far between in this field. Teaching is a joyful heartbreak; you love it, but it is hard. Mortified, apologize to your evaluator as they hand you a box of tissues. Your time with administrators is typically spent hearing what not to do or what you have done wrong. Moments of praise are exceedingly rare, and a piece of the precarious balance you keep between the teacher and heart hidden inside your chest is unsettled. Say thank you, avoid eye contact, and leave the room as soon as possible.
Nod curtly. You have things to do and places to be, plus you’ve been in the classroom at least twice as long as the person sitting across the desk from you. When your administrator marks you “proficient,” correct them. Explain how you have exceeded expectations. Expect nothing. You know better. Ask if the meeting is over yet. Don’t they know you need to use the restroom?
As the sole Creative Writing teacher, the expectation is that you will produce a literary magazine by the end of the school year. You continue to teach regular classes and must operate magazine demands after school. Often, these additional responsibilities amount to late nights, and you receive no extra pay for the additional hours. You are tired, stressed, and feel unappreciated. You formally request compensation for your added responsibilities. The director of instruction arranges a meeting with you to discuss it.
Sit in an uncomfortable office chair and feel sorry for the director of instruction as he is forced to relay the news that you will receive none of the options you listed as possibilities in your request: no professional development hours, no extra off period, no monetary stipend. He looks pained; delivering news like this is not his job, but clearly, the principal did not deem your concerns worthy of his time. Leave his office with a smile on your face so no one knows you’re upset and walk to your classroom. Gather your purse and car keys. Crumple once you close the door to your vehicle, and cry yourself home. How will you tell your spouse?
Resign yourself to the lack of compensation and accept your fate. You knew better than to expect anything because teachers go unrewarded all the time. It is part of the job. You tried and failed; hide your disappointment and keep going. The job is about the kids, not you. Try not to grow bitter as you win the school awards but receive nothing tangible to show for it.
Get fucking angry. Coaches receive a stipend for extra hours. Band gets a stipend. Theater gets a stipend. Why shouldn’t you? Oh, that’s right. Those are male-dominated fields that have nothing to do with academics. Why compensate a woman teaching an academically geared elective?
Feel all of the above. That night, lay in bed awake until the early hours of the morning. Know that you cannot do this anymore. Know that you have sacrificed time with your family, spouse, and friends for work. Know that the antidepressants you started taking a few years into teaching just aren’t cutting it anymore. Know that you have lost a vital part of yourself to your job. Know that you must move on, but who will want a dried-up husk of an educator that just couldn’t cut it? After all, you do get summers off.