I complain here about my job sometimes. I feel this is my God-given right both as an American citizen and as someone who signed up for a free WordPress blog. But in the interest of fairness, I think that I need to tell you about those days where I’m reminded of what actually makes teaching worthwhile, I mean honest-to-God rewarding, and not just a way to get a paycheck that’s better than working for a newspaper.
Today was the last day of school for our senior class. I don’t know what it’s like in your area, but down here seniors finish their classes about two weeks prior to the rest of the school. This class is a bit special to me, these are the kids who were ninth graders the first year I taught. As of today, those kids I looked out on with brittle nerves and trembling hands on that first day are no longer high school students. (Well, the ones who managed to graduate on time aren’t.) So although nothing is really changing for me day-to-day, watching them leave does feel like a certain rite of passage.
Today, their last day, the seniors wandered around the school, taking last looks at everything, saying goodbye to everyone. And a few kids I taught that first day sought me out. One, the first kid I ever really felt I connected with and managed to engage on a personal level, stopped in to say goodbye, and I was happy to wish him luck. Another kid I taught in both ninth and tenth grades (the one time I taught English II). He wants to be a writer, and as he knows that I am one he often asked for advice, which I gave him to the best of my ability, but always worried that I wasn’t being as helpful as he needed. Today he told me that he’s written three books, he’s looking for an editor, and when he gets his first book published he’s making sure I get a copy. And I told him, with as much sincerity as anything I’ve ever said in my life, that I’m looking forward to that.
Teaching is tough. It’s hard, when these kids are in your class, to tell if you’re doing them any good. You can’t tell if they’re getting anything out of your lectures, if you’re helping them to understand the concept, if anything you’re trying to get into their heads is actually sticking there. And as people have been pointing out long before I took the job, the pay is lousy, you get up ridiculously early in the morning, you have to deal with enough nonsense paperwork to threaten an entire ecosystem, and somehow it’s your fault that a kid who hasn’t turned in a homework assignment or finished the essay portion of a single test is failing with two weeks to go. Honest rewards, honestly rewarding moments, don’t happen often.
When a kid who isn’t in your class anymore, who has no possible ulterior motive to be nice to you, goes out of his or her way to say something you honestly believe is meant from the heart… that has an effect. You forget, just for a second, that a McDonald’s manager is making more money than you are, that you can’t remember where you left that stupid 504 form on Child 892.7, that said Child 892.7 just threw a sharpened pencil across the room at another student, and that there’s an e-mail on your computer right now from some mom who can’t understand why her perfect angel is probably going to repeat the ninth grade after he didn’t do his term paper and flunked three tests in a row.
Just for a moment, you get to forget that crap.
And you say to yourself, “Oh yeah. That’s why I’m a teacher.”
And you use that as your fuel when the next class steps into your room, and you do it all over again.