I didn’t teach last year because I resigned. I still feel guilty.
When I moved back to my hometown of Chicago, I accepted a position with a well-known, controversial charter school network in the city. I quickly found it was not the right fit for me. It wasn’t the students–they were full of hope and sweet in spite of the adverse circumstances they dealt with outside of school. It was the system.
If the ACT was king, a strict demerit system was the reigning queen. Students were part of a system that didn’t see them as individuals, but cogs in a wheel that kept churning out “College and Career Ready” students, as measured only by a test, and using strict rules to keep the wheels turning. There was no student choice, just multiple choice. No discussions, just lectures. No collaboration, just eyes tracking the teacher.
It was horrible. So horrible that I made the choice to leave. I felt like teaching to the school’s standards made me compromise non-negotiable parts of my teaching philosophy. I tried to break the mold, but received teacher demerits (seriously..teacher demerits). I couldn’t find my way in the system and struggled to officially make the choice to put myself before students.
I made a choice to leave. But I didn’t realize how many repercussions that choice would have. There was so much about teaching I missed and what I, admittedly, didn’t take the time to appreciate when I was in the classroom. I missed students most of all.
I missed the little things, like greeting them at my door, ready to embark on a 50 minute odyssey into the literary world. I missed wishing them a happy, safe weekend, then anxiously awaiting their return on Monday. I missed seeing their homecoming pictures and watching them in the school play. I missed having class jokes and saying hello in the hallways. I missed reminding every class, every day about an upcoming assignment and the student who had the best excuse when it isn’t completed on time. I missed waving to students as we each got into our cars to head home. I missed reminding them to relax, just take it easy for a night. I missed the chaotic moments in the classroom just as much as I missed the moments when all the fates in the world conspired and each child was rapt in their learning.
I missed transforming the protesting non-reader into a book worm. I missed adding recommendations to my book list from all types of readers. I missed students asking me what I was reading and why, did I like the book or the movie better , or which John Green book is the best. I missed the excitement I felt when a student genuinely loved a book or returned a book that I thought had been lost to a locker or car trunk forever. I missed being moved by a student’s connection to a character. I missed seeing my bookshelf fluctuate depending on what topic or genre was trending.
I missed reading their timed essays, the writing in their notebooks, the personal annotations in the margins of their books. As an English teacher, taking home 180 essays over your weekend doesn’t always feel like one of the perks of the job. Grading becomes tiresome halfway through the first stack of essays, and builds to a mundane, tedious task quickly thereafter. Until that one essay…the one from a shy student. The one from the athlete who no one takes seriously. The one from the student who actually managed to turn something in on the deadline. The one that yanks you from your near slumber and makes you re-read it because it is so insightful, poignant, and refreshing. These essays can be few and far between, but when they are uncovered in my stack of loose-leaf paper, they stir up my teacher soul. These golden essays remind us of the humanity and intelligence high schoolers have within them.
Can students be whiny? Sure. Can they be inconsistent? Consistently, it seems, some weeks. Can they be forgetful, even with a school-issued agenda and text-message reminders sent to their phones? Yep. But they can also be generous, helpful, and shockingly perceptive about the world. They can be innovative and resilient. In fact, they usually are every day.
As teachers, I think we often see the best of our students, the qualities their parents miss and their peers don’t notice. We notice their compassion when they offer to help a struggling student. We enjoy their passion when they light up on the field. We see their curiosity through the books they select and the choices they make in their own learning. I missed learning about each student as a member of my classroom community, and uncovering their beliefs, habits, and ideas slowly throughout the school year. I missed noticing their growth, as English students and young adults, from August to December to May. What is more rewarding than taking a step back and admiring an individual’s progress? We are so fortunate that nurturing and acknowledging individual progress is a routine component of our jobs.
I still think about those kids, the ones I chose to leave behind, and I still feel guilty. I wonder how they’ve fared as seniors, how they performed on the ACT, if they’re itching to break out of the mold and be free in a few short weeks. I wonder what they have been reading and writing. I wonder how I could have stayed and made it work.
There is magic that happens in a classroom. Sometimes we don’t notice it in the moment or it looks messy. It isn’t graded on our appraisals or summatively assessed, but it happens, in little moments and big “ah ha” moments. It happens because of our students.
As these weeks get more stressful the closer we get to summer break, I want to challenge all of us to remember the good in our students and try to have gratitude for what they bring to us each day. To be proud of the relationships you’ve worked to forge with your young readers and writers. To remember student achievements and how you have supported that growth. To recall, during arguably the most hectic, patience-testing time of the school year, the young adults that make this noble profession so demanding and rewarding.
Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago. A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors.
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