I want you to know that I see you. We see you. Those of us who gave decades of our lives to the classroom, to the children, to the hope for a better world. And those who gave a few years and then moved along in search of a more sustainable life. We all see you, and our hearts ache.
Maybe you’re watching the news as politicians grandstand over nonexistent issues, proposing bills about school boards and curriculum and yet another new set of standards and yet another new system of accountability and they have the nerve to say it’s all about the children. And you sigh because you know it has nothing at all to do with the children because the children are truly what YOU are all about.
Maybe you had to give up your planning time today for an urgent meeting to review data, set measurable goals, and examine strategies for maximizing your instructional minutes. Your planning time. That one precious window during a nonstop day where you could have called that parent or responded to those emails or chipped away at the mound of papers that need to be graded or used the restroom or refilled your water bottle or maybe even planned for instruction. But hey, it’s only one day, except that yesterday you had to cover a colleague’s class during your planning time because there were no subs to be found, and now that’s two days of planning time, and realistically, you know that tomorrow is anybody’s guess. And so you made a plan to stay late today and call that parent and respond to those emails and write up that action plan for how you will recoup learning losses and accelerate learning gains because your action plan is due tomorrow.
Maybe you didn’t have time after school, though, because you were required to attend professional development about self-care, and after an agonizing 15-minute delay due to technological issues, you watched a hastily-prepared slide presentation about strategies for reducing stress and improving your personal health. Strategies like setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier, carving out time for daily exercise, indulging in a hobby, keeping a journal, and drinking half your body weight in ounces of water. And you wonder why, if they’re serious about this, they didn’t just schedule a walk or a craft or a quiet journaling session. Or maybe they could have handed out bottles of water. But now, once again, you’ve been robbed of time, and now they’ve developed a form for you to fill out, to code and keep track of your self-care activities, which really seems counterintuitive, but you’ll do it anyway because you’re not in charge and you don’t have the energy it takes to rock the boat and you need those professional development points to recertify so you can keep running on this wheel.
Maybe as you drive away from school you realize that you forgot to write tomorrow’s learning objectives on the board, identifying the standards you’ll teach, the learning you’ll expect from your students. And this is critical because if administrators conduct a walk-through, they expect to see those objectives clearly posted because someone far from your classroom decided this is a great way for you to stay on track, to stay focused, to achieve those standards, and make those gains. But there’s not a standard that addresses your objectives, like one that says you will make each student feel seen and heard and valued, or one that says you’ll inspire a love of learning or finally engage that one kid. And those are the objectives that really matter. Because you know that you can teach as hard as you want, but the learning happens inside them, and unless you can achieve your objectives, the ones that are intangible and impossible to teach, test, and measure in an explicit, systematic way, all the other standards will be a lost cause.
Maybe you have trouble sleeping because as soon as you are able to be still, the thoughts come racing in about the student you can’t seem to reach. Or the kid who got on the bus and came to school even though she’d been awake since 2 AM when the police came banging on the door and took her uncle away. Or the kid who’s a little too skilled at manipulating others and you haven’t found the right turn-and-talk partner for him yet. Or the one who’s always coughing. Or the one who’s been absent for a week. Or the one who pulled out chunks of her own hair. And then you realize you never responded to those emails.
Maybe you go ahead and give up on sleep. You rise and decide to put the time to good use, tie up loose ends, get ahead, maybe even achieve some self-care that you can record on your self-care accountability form. So you read through those emails – so many emails – and you make those responses and clear out the junk and flag the ones you need to deal with tomorrow. Or later today, actually. And then maybe you send a message or a card or a gift to that aging parent or that sister who’s going through a rough patch or that friend you’ve canceled on twice. Maybe you even suggest planning a get-together because it’s the middle of the night and right now all things seem possible.
Maybe you tiptoe into your child’s room to watch her sleep and you pray over her and ask forgiveness for not being present, for not being patient, for not showing her that she is the most important person in your world because these are the things you want your students to receive from their parents but somehow you were not able to give them to your own child this evening as you rushed her through homework and dinner and bath and just a short book tonight because it was already past her bedtime.
Maybe you’re sipping coffee as the sun comes up and you’re wondering where it all went wrong and how you can fix it. Your heart aches for the children whose parents have so little time to be present, and yet that’s you. And your heart breaks over what’s missing in your relationships with your child or your spouse or your parent or your sibling or your neighbor because you’re pouring every last drop and then some into school and it’s leaving you empty. And in this moment, when the lines between matter and spirit are obscured by a pink sky after a sleepless night, maybe you find a bit of insight and perspective and hope.
Maybe you realize that the most important thing you can do today is LOVE. And so you reset your objectives. You will hear every student’s voice today. You will make eye contact with each one. You will say each child’s name. You will bond as a community by reading a book, singing a song, creating art, telling jokes, taking a walk, or writing in journals. You will teach them to create, engage, laugh, and love.
Maybe today you will go to school with a renewed sense of possibility and a new set of goals because you accept the reality that no matter how hard you teach, no standard can be learned and internalized and made a part of them until these goals are met. And so, where there should be objectives written on the board to correspond to state standards, you will write your actual objectives. The ones they need. The ones that matter most. The ones that are not frivolous or fleeting or found on a test. The ones that are foundational to all learning and every good and perfect thing. CREATE. ENGAGE. LAUGH. LOVE.
And so, dear teacher, my wish for you is that you’re able to adjust your lens to the things that really matter, the things that feed and nourish and nurture and last. The investment you make in teaching a child to create, to engage, to laugh, to give and receive love might not show up in short-term data but will undoubtedly produce long-term gains. And after fighting the good fight all day, I implore you to leave it in the classroom until tomorrow because I promise you it will all still be there. Go home and love your people. Standards and politicians and action plans and accountability forms will come and go. But the time you invest in love is enduring, and it is the only way this wheel will keep turning. And it is the only way we will finally make this world a better place. We see you, dear teacher. The torch is in your hands, and our hearts are hopeful.
The Teachers Who Came Before