Back to School
Here they come.
If you’re one of the nearly four million American school teachers, this exact thought will have crossed your mind or will be crossing your mind in the coming weeks. The simple three word phrase represents all sorts of emotions: excitement, anxiety, nervousness, fear, worry. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and for America’s teachers, they have one opportunity to meet and greet their students and to establish the kind of culture that will endure over the next 9 calendar months. If you’re too strict, you might have students retract into their shells. If you’re too lenient, you might have students feel they can push your boundaries. If you’re too passionate, you might have students think you’re crazy. If you’re too thorough, students might think you’re dull. Teachers constantly pull a high-wire act, nowhere more so than on the very first day of school.
Because no matter how well a teacher has prepared, something inevitably will go wrong on the first day of school. A bus will be late. Morning announcements will sound muffled. There will be a student in your class who is not on your roster. There will be a student who is not a native English speaker. There will be a student asking to go to the bathroom within moments of entering the classroom. There will be a misspelled word on the syllabus. There will be a missing textbook, even though you’re positive you set out one at each and every desk. There will be questions about student schedules that would be much better answered by the guidance counselors. And there will always be a moment when the teacher, having experienced a combination of any and all of the aforementioned challenges, wonders why he or she puts in so much prep time when year after year it’s the same chaotic first day.
Such is the life of America’s teachers, one of the most rewarding and challenging professions. With so many variables, it should come as no surprise that even veteran teachers get nervous on the first day of school. And it doesn’t get any easier after that. After establishing rules and creating the kind of culture teachers want for their classroom in the first few days, teachers then have to get into their content area. Pushed by unrealistic timelines and an incessant need to test student performance, teachers will have to make sacrifices about what they can and cannot teach. Areas of particular passion aren’t given priority. Controversial material is to be avoided. Teachers’ political opinions are to be held in check. Despite having classroom autonomy, tests are standardized and don’t necessarily reflect the way in which the classroom material was presented. Teachers must modify lessons due to late arrival days, early release days, pep rallies, and school cancellations. Sometimes classroom technology doesn’t work. Sometimes teachers need to take personal or sick days, thereby setting themselves and their curricula back in a way they had not anticipated. Sometimes the material isn’t absorbed and needs to be retaught. Sometimes, one group gets it and the next group does not. Sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason to the adolescent mind.
And that’s just teaching the material. None of those challenges reflect the dynamic of being entrusted with 20-30 children for 45 to 90 minutes at a time. Children who are growing in mind, body, and spirit. Some of whom are in a classroom for the very first time. Some of whom are discombobulated by daily hormones. Some of whom don’t see the purpose of education. Some of whom see education as the only way out. Some of whom who are ready to graduate yesterday. Some of whom should have graduated last year. Despite only having students for an hour, teachers fully feel the effect of the students’ other 23 hours. Students often enter a classroom sick, hungry, or tired. Their current relationships with their parents, family, peers, and significant others affect their learning. An incident that occurred in the hallway on the way to class can impact a single student who, in turn, can impact the entire class. Students act out to show off to their peers, to avoid responsibility, and sometimes both. Student conflict can lead to fighting. Fighting can lead to suspension. Suspension can lead to a student falling behind his peers and getting frustrated all over again. The dynamic of a single class can swing on whether one student is having a good or a bad day.
Through all these variables, teachers must remain professional. They must swallow their pride and teach to the test. They must endure the class clown constantly attempting to undermine their authority. They must prepare students for fire and lockdown drills that interrupt instructional time. They must submit themselves to former evaluations often done twice a year by a single administrator. In a year in which the teacher instructs nearly 800 classroom lessons, he or she must be judged on two lessons which represents a huge chunk of their yearly evaluation. Combined with how their students perform on standardized tests, a variable that is often dependent on a student’s prior learning, and teachers are constantly under the microscope, never feeling truly secure until they earn tenure. For younger teachers teaching in impoverished communities, they have to not only worry about their own professional evaluations, but also whether or not their schools will remain open the next academic year.
But at the end of the day, teachers endure all this and more because they love the profession. They find it a calling rather than a job. They find true meaning in helping to mold young minds and to build relationships with young men and women. A large percentage burn out, get frustrated, and simply leave the profession after 5 years. Some stay in the same classroom for 40 years and teach multiple generations of students. There are teachers who give their all not only in the classroom but as coaches, class advisers, and club coordinators. There are teachers who leave the classroom and then go to a second and sometimes third job. There are teachers going to the store to buy classroom supplies out of their own pockets. Their weekends are not relaxing but are rather consist of grading papers, refining lessons, and thinking critically about their chosen career. They see their students not as a number on a roster but as human beings, flaws and all. They stay up late and wake up early thinking about how to connect with that single quiet student in the back of the room. They shed a tear on the last day of school and a few more tears at graduation.
So as our children head back to school over the next month, know that you as parents and grandparents aren’t the only ones who are nervous and anxious. So, too, is your child’s teacher. Give him or her the space to best instruct your child. Defer to his or her professional training and judgment. Know that like yourselves, they have a lot going on in their own personal lives and must put all that aside for 8 hours a day, sometimes working with as many as 120 unique young men and women. They’ve done everything they could to prepare for that first day so that your child can live, grow, and thrive in an academic setting. When you’re at home, asking your child how his or her day at school was, know that nearly 4 million teachers are being asked that very same question by their spouse and family members.
And know that question is the one that teachers will ask themselves each and every night for the next 9 months straight.
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