“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I’ve known the answer to that question since I was thirteen years old, and in all of that time, it hasn’t changed. Apparently, I’ve actually grown up. I am what I wanted to be: a high school English teacher. I did everything I was supposed to do, and now I’m living my dream.
I had some great teachers in high school, but I also had a few not-great teachers. They were doing more harm than good, and I hated that. I had a passion for reading and writing, and knew I wanted to have a career that included those skills. I realized that I could help students avoid those less-than-superb teachers by becoming a great teacher. I wanted to help people and make a difference, and I realized that this would be my way of doing it. And I had an idea that I knew what I was getting myself into.
When I was in high school and college, every time I told people I wanted to be a teacher, I would get one of two responses: some remark about how I’ll never make any money or some comment about me being a saint or an angel. I generally rolled my eyes and acted like it was really no big deal. I’m not in it for the money, and my high school teachers (the good ones at least) made it seem so easy.
I’m not saying that I thought teaching would be easy. I knew that it would be a lot of (extra) work and long (unpaid) hours. I knew that I’d have difficult students and rough days. And I knew that the first few years would be the hardest of my adult life.
What I didn’t know was how many times I would spend my lunch locked in my classroom crying. I didn’t know how many days I would leave work knowing that I had failed as a teacher that day. No one told me that I would spend more time feeling like I was doing everything wrong than feeling like I was doing anything right. I’ve always been an incredibly confident person. So I wasn’t prepared for the crippling self-doubt that comes with being a teacher.
Every skill is developed through practice, through trial and error. You have to test your skills out and figure out what works best for you. The same is true for teaching, except there are countless variables, and a teacher’s failure affects more than just him/herself.
When teaching, you have to take into consideration your students, your administrators (especially as a new teacher), your colleagues, and your school. What should the students already know? What do they actually know? How do they learn? Why do they learn? And then, once you’ve taken all of that into consideration and planned the perfect lesson, you have to put it into effect. Except there are more variables. What time of day is it? What day of the week? What is going on in each individual student’s life that could get in the way of their learning today?
When I fail to successfully engage and teach my students, I am jeopardizing their success. Every trial creates some error, and that is a lasting thing. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone home and wondered if I’ve completely messed up my students’ education. I mean, I’ve improved as a teacher, and I know that I will continue to improve. But I worry that in my quest to become a great teacher, as I truly believe I can, my students are suffering. I worry that every year I’m not the great teacher I want to be, that’s another set of students who have missed out on an educational opportunity. And with every failed lesson or rough day, I worry that I’m wrong about my ability to be a great teacher.
I’m so lucky to say that throughout high school and college, I didn’t have extreme crises of confidence. I’ve been fortunate enough to be comfortable in my skin and with my general purpose in life. I’ve had some rough times, dealt with loss and abandonment and some self-doubt, as I’m sure everyone does. But until now, I’ve never questioned myself as much as I do as a teacher, and it’s terrifying. What if I can’t be a great teacher? What if, as a teacher, I’m doing more harm than good? What if I’m completely screwing over 150 kids a year because I thought I could help them? What if I’m the type of teacher I hated when I decided I wanted to be a teacher in the first place?
I love my job. I love my students and my colleagues. And every day I am reminded of why I became a teacher when I see that “lightbulb” moment as a student picks up an important concept. When I see a student who “hates” reading pick up a book that she falls in love with, I know that I’m in the right profession. When I watch a student who has, for whatever reason, been convinced that he can’t learn actually find success with a difficult skill, I know that I’m doing what I’m meant to do. Those are the moments I live for as a teacher. But it’s difficult to balance those highs with the lows that come when a student fails a quiz or does poorly on an essay because I did not teach them correctly.
How do I reconcile my successes with my failures? How do I accept the fact that as I hone my craft, there will be students who fall through the cracks? How do I become okay with idea that I cannot reach all of the students?
There is no answer book for these questions and the hundreds more I ask myself regularly about my skills and success as a teacher. There is no “one size fits all” in education, for teachers or for students. I’m a teacher, but I don’t have all of the answers. And perhaps it’s the concern I have for my students and my constant self-questioning as a teacher that proves that I’m up for the challenge.