Abusive parents, feelings of abandonment, serious illnesses, death, stories of kids growing up way too fast, pressure to fit in, court cases, unhealthy relationships. I just finished reading a batch of student journals. Of course these heavy topics were sprinkled among entries about golf tournaments, learners permits, life philosophies, to-do lists, drawings of spaceships and talking pizzas, song lyrics and other light-hearted subjects. But it's the burdensome journals that stick with me for weeks. It's these that drive me to tears at my kitchen table with my trusty purple pen lingering over the paper as I try to come up with a set of soothing words to comfort each unique student. But somehow, "I'm sorry you have to deal with all of this. You shouldn't have to. Keep your head high and hold on to hope. If you ever need to talk, my door is open" just seems shallow and contrived. These entries keep me up late at night as I mill over what I should've done better to let each student know I care. These journals remind me why that one student sleeps in class and why the other never turns in his homework. Most of all---these journals and the students behind them remind me that to teach is to be an activist.
Anyone who is a teacher has these utopic visions of what teaching is like while they are an undergraduate student aspiring to be the next Erin Gruwell or John Keating. I never thought I'd deal with homelessness--run-away parents--abuse--and the other gamut of issues I deal with daily. I always thought I'd retire as a teacher. But now I'm not so sure. I love my job. I love my students. But I'm not sure how many sleepless nights due to that one "headache" child (who is a headache because that's the only time she gets attention) I can handle. I've heard that the life of an English teacher is five years, and after year three---I believe it. I've had it set in my mind that I'd do something different in five years--I'd go back to school full time to pursue a PhD so I don't have to deal with the hassles that sometimes come with teaching public education.
But if teaching is activism, then it's also service. And sometimes service sucks. Serving others isn't glamorous. It's not an 8-5 job. Serving sometimes requires us get dirty and wash grimy feet--to humble ourselves. And after reading those journal entries (even though it took me two hours to read 24 out of 75), I feel like I can't give up. My students need me to be there for them--to help them form productive words and actions that will spur change; they need me to be the voice that will speak for them when they can't or when nobody else will listen to them; they need me to speak about their amazing potential. I can't give up that responsibility. I can't walk away from them like so many people already have.
Unfortunately--many are leaving or will leave the education profession. Some, because they're not cut out for it while others will leave because politicians will push them out. And though it's emotionally and physically draining to teach in a day and age where teachers are not respected and students are treated as test-taking-robots, I'll continue to walk into my classroom with a smile on my face (though it may be burdensome) and love to pass out to each kid--even those who make me question my career path.