First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

I’ve been making notes for this entry since last October. At first I was going to wait a few years to actually say this stuff to the internet-at-large, but I can’t help myself: here we go.

I planned to write a long list of advice for first year teachers, like the one I wrote a year ago when I finished college. But I discovered within about two days of becoming a faculty member alongside wonderful people who wanted to see me succeed, that for every piece of advice there is an equal and opposite piece of advice. So basically, even with the best support system in the world (which, including my parents and former teachers and friends who are a phone call away, I may well have had) you’re going to have to figure it out on your own in the moment, or you’re never going to figure it out at all. And that’s absolutely okay. So that’s what I have to say about that.

But if not advice, what? I guess just a rambling reflection, which is mostly what I do on here anyway. I have grown and changed this year perhaps more than I have in all four years of college. Every day that I have taught, without fail, I have felt both very young and very old. A while back, at play rehearsal I turned to a coworker and said, “There’s five years between me and them, and ten years between me and you, but I feel so much closer in experience to you.” “Yup.” she said. “Weird.” I said. And yet I cry at Caldwell choir concerts, because they inevitably make me feel seventeen again, and while there is something precious about that feeling, it is not quite comfortable either. But being in-between is most of what life is, so this is absolutely okay too.

Looking back I think I went through most of first semester in a bit of shock. I remember one day in September when Lisa came around to take attendance, I told her with a mix of bravado and desperation that they were all present, though I hadn’t even bothered to count them, much less look at my roster. I would doggedly stay up late into the night, making powerpoints and organizing notes, feeling my heart turn to heavy iron whenever a new email appeared unexpectedly in my school inbox. On the rare occasions that I was in a context other than Caldwell, I still couldn’t manage to talk about anything other than school and my students, no matter if my listeners were interested. (Still not great at that, but I’m getting better. I’m becoming more normal again.) Here is a somewhat-exact excerpt of notes I kept for myself throughout that first semester:

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

Sixteen-year-olds are little turds who don’t know that teachers have feelings.

At least I haven’t cried in front of students yet. That’s a victory.

I love being observed. It’s the freaking best. It makes me feel safe.

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

I stay up late because I want time to myself before I go in the next morning.

It is so hard to get up in the morning. SO hard.

Why does my life have so many binder clips in it now?

Is it going to be like this all year?

IMPORTANT: That day sixth period worked quietly. 11/6. Let it be remembered. [Note: I actually wrote a poem about this day. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”]

But I survived. And stayed marginally sane to boot. I kept in touch with friends who were also first-year-teaching, because the front of a classroom can be a starkly lonely place. It is good to feel as if you’re in the trenches alongside someone else (and now that I’ve briefly taught World War One, that’s an especially vivid metaphor). I watched all of Boy Meets World, and though I remain doubtful that it’s really very kosher to regularly assign essays on a whim at the end of class just because the topic pertains to an issue in your favorite students’ lives, I was reminded that even in the world of nineties sitcoms, it is still possible to be a truly fine teacher and that doing so doesn’t center around making your students happy. And then late one Sunday night in November, when I felt just awful, I found this:

fqjsm

I’m not typically a big charts and stages person, but this is absolute it-gets-better gospel truth. Believe it, cause it’s real. By December, according my notes at the time, I had “all warm fuzzy advent feelings after seeing them sing and getting gifts from them and having them treat me like a real human being and not just a grade machine.” Things were looking up. I was going to be okay and so were they.

In fact, there are a few students to whom I wish I could write individual thank you notes for encouragement they didn’t even know they gave. Highschoolers can cause more pain than they know–but their kindnesses, even unintentional and very small kindnesses, can bring so much joy. The times a student has gone out of his or her way to actually make my day better, I have usually cried (though not in front of them.) And it was a fairly normal but unexpected thing one single student did way back in early December that made me decide not to up and quit when I was feeling a bit desperate.

Really perhaps the thing I have learned most thoroughly this year is the thank you note thing: the value of appreciation and expressing gratitude. When I was a sophomore in college I wrote Dr. Brown a thank you note once and she made a huge deal out of it in front of the rest of the students, and said that sometimes she felt like Christ healing the ten lepers with only one coming back to say thank you. I thought this story was hilarious–I adored Dr. Brown, but she was comparing herself to Jesus, for goodness sake–and would tell it over and over to my English major friends. I no longer think it’s funny. I know exactly what she meant. When you teach and you care that you do it well, you are fighting on the front lines of humanity. You’re teaching the human mind to reach its potential, holding out the world in your hands, trying to get the faces in front of you to comprehend it, to feel their own smallness. There’s so much pressure to get it right, but when you do get it right, often nobody notices, and this is discouraging. To give more than you take, that is what every good teacher does, but no mere mortal can give out of a dry well. We all need water.

So, knowing that, and knowing what I know now especially, I want to shyly and belatedly be grateful to the people who taught me. I didn’t know what it took, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could have understood.  Thank you. Thank you for what you did for me: for crying with me, for laughing with and at me, for graciously thinking it was endearing when I told you bluntly that your class was “not my happy place,” for reading picture books aloud, for letting me run to your room in tears when I first discovered Billy Collins, for handing me that mysterious and wonderful envelope before the New York trip, for letting me sit on a desk during your planning period and just talk and talk and talk. And thank you for what you did for all of us: for heavy worry, for long patience, for giving us the best of what you loved, for volunteering to be Atlas with the world on his shoulders and believing it to be worth the trouble, for finally entrusting each of us to Jesus when it was all that you could do.

I see it a bit more clearly now. Second semester, when my responsibilities began to pick up pace, and when my heart learned to hold on anyway and smile in the wind, I started to care less about what my students thought of me and more about the students themselves. And I didn’t know that in a job in which I was supposed to be the helper, I would routinely feel so helpless to really love them well. So unable and weak. They need so much charity and compassion and help. I know this because I need this things too. I know this because, in our need and inability, we are the same.

Despite all of the doing and learning and trying, the appreciation and the lack thereof, I am discovering a secret which probably most teachers who’ve gone before me know. Education, when you really try to do it right, is debt. An extensive and painfully shining web of unpaid and often unacknowledged debt. We’re all bound and knotted together by it. We give and are given to over and over again, then march off triumphantly into the sunset, as if our spoils are our own, while the ropes of debt tug at our heels. Some days I can’t keep straight who is demanding restitution from whom. There is a colossal owing, and we, none of us, can possibly pay it back. And this, I think, is where education all goes bad or is hatched, where we begin to ceaselessly demand the pound of flesh from one another, or relinquish ourselves to the waist-high waters of grace.

This has been a long and meandering entry, but really there is one reason I have written it: I am preaching to myself. I am saying: “Alice, you feel as if you’ve worked hard and given much, but what you have given is that which was first given you. Your deficits are deep and wide, but they have been filled by a love that is deeper and wider. Your debts have been cancelled by the great Forgiver of debt, the Payment himself. Forgive your debtors as your debts have been forgiven. Look at the world and look at the hands that hold it and remember that you are small. See that your Lord is large and great. Love with liberty and with joy.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

One thought on “First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

  1. Pingback: Joy | Alice with Paper

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