Not The Little Girl Who Played Teacher

I was never the little girl who played teacher. I did not line up my stuffed animals for class, in little desks, assigning imaginary homework and taking broken pieces of sidewalk chalk to beat up a blackboard. I did not schedule in time for recess. Or snacks.

Ally, 1989.

Ally, 1989.

For a long time, I thought I was too good to be a teacher. Whatever that means. I was sold on the American dream: go to college and work hard. Get a good job. Vacations. New cars every three years. The big wedding, with the big dress. If you work hard, you can achieve your dreams - however when I was ready to get moving on that promise, I hadn’t figured out what those dreams were. So I deigned to become an educator, at least for a year or two.

Me, Ms. Big Ideas (and big hair) with her degrees and her witty banter, a teacher. A “glorified babysitter”, with meaningless assignments, rubrics, and rote memorization. Temporary, and not at all for me.

The problem was that I promptly fell in love with my students. I learned pretty quickly that teaching is part triage, part trench warfare, part therapist, part parent. We hear a lot from teachers, especially these days: that they are overworked and underpaid, that they are aren’t respected and working without contracts. I’m in the minority when I tell my public school counterparts: I think this comes with the territory. When you spend more time with the children than their parents, you will be misunderstood. When what you’re teaching makes some people uncomfortable and you push the envelope, asking students to challenge themselves, you will be made the villain. When grades and college acceptance letters are made more important than learning, you will attacked and misunderstood.

There isn’t a week that goes by, after years in the classroom, that I do not cry and rethink my position on classroom teaching. I come home exhausted, emotionally and mentally. I wake up to scathing emails and phone calls regularly, and every bit about me is fair game: 

I’m too young, unmarried, unsettled. When you are a teacher, you are opening yourself up to a experiencing of the worst in people. In a world of high stakes testing and grade inflation, a teacher, to some, is not a shepherd, but an obstacle. Something to beat down and work around until personal goals are achieved.

They say that if you can make it in the classroom for five years, you’ll be a teacher forever. But the initial statistics are staggering: “Every year, U.S. schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers for that first day of class. By the time summer rolls around, at least 22,000 have quit. Even those who make it beyond the trying first year aren't likely to stay long: about 30 percent of new teachers flee the profession after just three years, and more than 45 percent leave after five” 

But for those who do stay, you are also privy to the very best. As I got older, I learned that the students’ successes have little to do with me. When I watch them enroll in Ivy League colleges, break records in the pool, write code, create non-profits, make documentaries, I have to remove myself from the scenario. I don’t credit myself for their wins, but when they fall short, I feel as though I have failed them. I mull and hem and haw, “What could I have done better? How could I have made it clearer?” Never easier. I push myself to challenge them in new ways, reminding them that the jobs I am preparing them for don’t even exist yet.

I tell my fiancee regularly that I am not ready to have children, because I have so many students who fill up my heart and brain. 

The involvement cycle is always the same: you love and care for these young people, giving them everything you have - time, tears, sweat. Sacrifices are made, time taken away from husbands, wives, and children, to be great teachers. We are over involved. And inevitably, at the end of the year, the children leave us, moving on to bigger and better things. This is the way the world works for us. They go on, maybe one or two will remember you, and the impact you had when they were in your classroom. But by and large, they do not, and we have to make space for the next batch of kids to love and worry about until they leave us, too.

In graduate school I toyed with the notion that this over involvement is somehow tied to gender. Because I will probably be a mother, I have the capacity to step into that role in the classroom. Once a woman’s job, like midwifery, to bring children into adulthood. But I don’t think that is the case. It’s not man or woman, it’s education. To take up teaching as your vocation, as Inchausti puts it, is about self-sacrifice and dedication to your own past self, as a student. We are compelled to this vocation because we have big ideas and witty banter.  We bought into the dream of going to college and have found something meaningful to pursue - to pass on the dream of meaningful pursuit every day in every classroom.

-- Ally Schieve is a South Jersey transplant to that "central Jersey" region that doesn't really exist. She splits her time between teaching high school English / History, reading all of Ophrah's book club suggestions, and attempting Paleo recipes in her crock pot. Her dream is to become a Vatican City tour guide and is one stop closer by marrying her Italian-national fiance this fall. Check out her blog: http://tequillavsmockingbird.wordpress.com/