A friend once said, “The Facebook comments are where common sense and decency go to die.” And yet, I still read them and sometimes I even respond. It’s akin to a train wreck; I can’t look away.
Recently I got caught up in a thread where a man made a disparaging comment about teachers, insinuating that they have it so good, all those half days and paid vacations. I immediately felt my blood pressure rise. My face got hot. And a hundred responses went through my head, mostly with the word ignorant and a few other unprintables.
This man attacked my people. Teachers are my people; for fifteen years I was a teacher. And once a teacher, always a teacher, in my opinion.
I started to type a response, then I deleted it. Then another, and I deleted that one too. I must have started and deleted four or five posts before I settled on something that neither included the word ignorant nor any swears. And it was only a fraction of what I wanted to say.
It occurred to me that this man has no idea what it means to be a teacher, or what the job entails. So, sir, let me enlighten you.
Not a single teacher I have ever met over the course my career decided to go into this profession because of the “great pay and great vacations.” And those people who went into teaching because they thought it would be an “easy” career choice? They either burned out after a couple of years, or they became so miserable in their job they left anyway.
If you are a preschool teacher, you are a “mom” of sorts in the classroom, teaching kids to sneeze into their elbows and wash their hands properly. You clean up vomit and rub tummies at naptime. You encourage that reluctant potty-trainee to just do it. You wipe bums and noses and faces and sticky fingers. You tie shoes and zip coats and you smile all day because your students need that. You teach them to share and write their names and say the Pledge of Allegiance. And you will be called “mom” or “dad” accidentally a dozen times a week.
You learn to hold your pee for at least seven hours (sometimes more), no matter what caffeinated drink you need to get through the morning.
You are a shopper, a spender. You cannot pass up a sale at Staples or Wal-Mart when there is a giant Crayola display beckoning. You spend more money than you should on stickers, markers, books, beanbag chairs, organizing baskets and binders- all to make your classroom a place where kids feel safe and comfortable and want to be.
You spend this money because you know the school budget just cut another 3 full time employees from the district. There’s no librarian to staff your school library, and administration isn’t going to have the money in the budget to buy those award certificates just so you can boost your students’ self-esteem.
You are a planner. You bring your plan book home because you need peace and quiet to put together a week’s worth of lesson plans in science, math, English, social studies, and sometimes health. Sometimes you’ll work for five or seven hours on a Sunday doing just that. Because you want to plan lessons and activities that will keep the kids engaged and excited about learning.
You’ll bring report cards and tests home to grade and comment on, because no matter how the administration schedules “planning time,” it’s never enough. You might have to grade or comment on those tests while your own children need help with their own homework.
You are a referee for those two boys in your classroom, the ones who are smart and athletic and aggressive, and so alike that they can get along fine one minute and the next are ready to throw punches at each other.
You are a sounding board for the parent of one of those boys, who comes to your classroom after school one day, upset. She shouts at you, insisting her boy isn’t at fault, getting into your personal space, pointing a finger at your chest, all while you must remain professional and insist you will come up with a solution to the conflicts. You will fight every urge to yell back.
You are a counselor to the girl who can’t seem to find a friend group, who always seems alone. You are a confidante and a shoulder to cry on.
You are a witness. You will notice the kid who “forgets” his snack each day, and notice how he pretends not to be hungry. You will stash extra snacks in your desk.
When you’re in front of the class, you will pretend not to notice the body odor and dirty clothes on another student. But you will tell the nurse. You are a mandated reporter of any suspected neglect or abuse.
You may be summoned to court to testify in a custody hearing. You may be asked to speak to a court-appointed guardian ad-litem for a case of suspected or alleged abuse. You will be prepared to have your every word scrutinized and analyzed.
You are a performer, trying to keep your students’ attention when they’re used to action on a screen. You are a master of improvisation when your science experiment fails, or you finish what was supposed to be a 45 minute lesson in 10 minutes.
You are a juggler, listening to one child tell you excitedly how she finally “got” her math homework, while untangling someone’s hair from a coat zipper, and trying to take attendance. All at the same time. You will become a master multi-tasker, because the above scenario will be the norm.
You are the designated Pest Control Officer. Bees, spiders, wasps, or anything with more than two legs and/or wings will cause chaos and you will have to employ necessary means to rid your classroom of it.
You are a choreographer. You know exactly how to plan a seating chart that allows for friend groups but not cliques. You know who cannot sit next to whom during an assembly, and which kid needs to be in your group (not the parent chaperone) on a field trip.
You will become your classroom’s personal and confidential database. You will remember which kid gets on which bus, and who is getting dismissed for an appointment. You will know which kid needs to go to the nurse for ADHD meds, and which kid is allergic to peanuts. You will know that Jane’s parents are going through a nasty divorce and often she will come to school unprepared because she left something at one parent’s house and they don’t talk to each other unless a lawyer is present. You will know the reason Joe comes in exhausted every day is because his single mom works second shift; she doesn’t get home until 11:30 pm and he’s in charge of his little brother the whole evening. And it’s hard to fall asleep when she’s not home.
You are a keeper of things, lost things, found things, confiscated things: an iPhone, hair bows, sweatshirts, slingshots, bracelets, beanie babies. You are a keeper of secrets and feelings. You are a holder of hands and hearts.
You are a worrier. You will worry about them- all of them. You will worry that you didn’t do enough, or that maybe you pushed too hard. You will carry their stories with you and you will remember their faces long after they’ve left your classroom.
You may see a familiar photo on Facebook and read about a tragic fatal accident, remembering this girl was one of your students 20 years ago. You will remember and you will cry.
You are a keeper of memories, and of names. Her memory. Her name.
You are a teacher.