Teaching is not fair.
I thought about this over the weekend when I faced the stack of papers I needed to grade and the lessons I needed to plan. My husband went into work yesterday, but at least he got comp time for it. I got nothing.
It’s not fair. But let me explain what I really mean about it not being fair.
Every year I tell my students about my dad. This past week, I got a new fourth period, so I told them about Daddy, too. Here’s what I told them.
My dad is one of ten kids. He grew up poor, so poor that he was often a Salvation Army angel, so poor that he often went hungry, so poor that he couldn’t play sports in school. He had to drop out of high school to work to feed his siblings when he was in eleventh grade, which happens to be the grade I teach. It wasn’t fair. My Daddy is smart. Gifted, even. Brilliant, probably. But he was hungry and not treated well.
But my daddy made a decision early on in life to make things right. He chose a good person to marry. He chose a woman who embodied love, hard work, dedication, and all the things he wanted to see in his children. And he worked. So during my childhood, while we weren’t rich, we never went hungry. Daddy made sure we had everything we needed not only to survive but to fly. He made sure my sisters and I would not be tethered to chains of poverty and ignorance. He did this not by buying us lots of stuff. He did this by educating us, by working hard, by speaking words of strange and wonderful wisdom into us that would follow us always. He did this by loving us.
So when I stand in front of the classroom, I see my daddy in these children. I see him 45 years ago: sarcastic, maybe not wanting to be there, maybe wishing he were out fishing, maybe thinking the story was pointless, maybe flirting with the girl sitting next to him. I see him every single day in my classroom. And because I see my Daddy, who I love so very much, I work hard. Of course I want him to be proud of me, but it’s more than that. I see him there, in my students, and I want the best for him. I want to turn back time so he can have everything he never had. It’s not fair that I can’t. All I can do is make it right for my own students. In so many ways, I teach for Daddy.
There is another way my job is not fair. So much of public education is broken, and so much of it angers me. However, I find great solace within with walls of my classroom.
The joy I find in instruction makes up for the frustration and exhaustion I feel outside of my classroom. When I entered the teaching profession almost twenty years ago, I entered it with an attitude of a minister. While my job is to teach Language Arts and Rhetoric, I provide that service to my students out of love, not just for a paycheck. Every student who enters my room has immense value and deserves to be loved and cared about. Every student has potential to do good in this world; I have the great honor of being a part of that.
It truly isn’t fair that tomorrow morning while the rest of the adults have to go to their jobs, I will get to go to a place where I will get to talk about Mark Twain and Plato and subordinate clauses! I get to discuss how place is important in literature, what the message is in pop culture, the meaning of epistemology and how we can escape Plato’s metaphorical cave. And later this month my students will write for me, and oh, what an honor it is to have them trust me with their words! And we will read Miller and Fitzgerald and Walker and Plath and Emerson and Hemingway and Descartes and Hobbes and whoever else they want to read, and what joy there will be! I don’t mean to make you jealous, but I get to read The Great Gatsby aloud to fourth period next month. We will read Walker’s “Everyday Use” and I will cry. I always do. I will get mad at the end of The Crucible. Darn you, Abigail Williams! No!
What will make all of this especially wonderful are the students. I will get to share all of this with my kids. They are the best part of my job. Tomorrow 123 students will filter in and out of my classroom. I am honestly thankful for each one, because each one is a life with immeasurable value and beauty. Also, teenagers are weird and interesting. Sometimes they make the job challenging, but they are worth the challenge. Even on the worst days, they give me so many reasons to smile and remind me why I am there at all. Make no mistake, it is not the children who drive the good teachers away from education. In fact, the children are the reason I stay. They are a constant source of joy for me. While I love teaching writing and literature, I think I would be happy teaching almost anything, as long as my students were there.
I went into teaching to share the love of God to others and to serve others. In truth, I have been the one ministered to. I have been the one who is continually blessed. I thank God for this job. More importantly, I thank God for every single student I have ever had the pleasure and honor of teaching.
And I thank God that I get to go to my classroom tomorrow. Like Carroll O’Connor’s character says in Return to Me when his granddaughter offers to help him, “No darlin’. Not at all. I’m blessed with work.”
No, teaching is definitely not fair.
I stayed home from work today because my baby was sick. He started feeling bad yesterday, and there is a virus going around, so I anticipated he would probably have to stay home today.
When your child is sick, it is stressful, whether you work or stay at home. Beyond the heartache of your child not feeling well, there is the burden of having to miss work, which means you have to use up a sick day or not get paid. You have to reorganize and reschedule and redo. You might have to do some work at home. You might worry what your boss thinks about you missing work. Depending on the job, it might mean putting your co-workers in a bind or creating inconveniences for your clients or customers, or in my case my students.
Last night when Joseph, my baby, told me he felt bad, I emailed my boss and school secretary and let them know I might be missing work. Then when I had to call in this morning, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t feel stressed. I didn’t worry over what my students would do, how I would have to change my lesson plans, how I was using one of my precious sick days. Instead, I chose to embrace with joy the opportunity to stay home with my child.
Because I know the days of staying home with him are almost at an end.
My baby is twelve and in sixth grade. My baby is as tall as I am. My baby is not a baby at all. He doesn’t need me as much as he used to, and sometimes it is hard to let him not need me. I have been taking care of my children for over sixteen years, and so I don’t remember what it’s like to not have someone rely on me. My two older children, both in high school, still love me and need me, but in a different way, not the way a young child needs his parents for completeness and safety and even for his identity and survival. And now Joseph is on the edge of that. One day he will not need me to stay home with him, in the same way he doesn’t need me to read him stories at night or fix his dinner plate or cuddle with him when we watch television.
So today was a day of watching movies and napping and being with my son, because today might have been the last time I will need to stay home with him. I did grade papers, but I did so in our family room, with my Joseph close by. Several times throughout the day he hugged me and thanked me for taking care of him. At one point, maybe after the fifth or sixth hug, with Joseph’s big arms wrapped around me, my head on his shoulder, I said, “Sweetie, I really haven’t done that much.”
He responded, “Yes, you have. You’re here. That’s all I needed.”
I do not write about what goes on in teacher leader meetings. Often we are dealing with confidential issues or we are sharing grievances or we arguing policy. Sometimes we’re just complaining. Everything else is probably too boring to write about in a blog: paperwork, new procedures, calendar information. But I am making an exception to write about our meeting this past week.
We sat in the student desks in Ms. Vasser’s cozy Social Studies classroom. The conference room where we usual meet is currently inaccessible, as is the lobby, the teachers’ lounge, several classrooms, and part of the hallway that leads to my room. So we made do somewhere else.
Mrs. Rhody and Mrs. McCarty, the math teachers, sat behind me. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Barnes sat a couple desks in front of me. Ms. Vasser sat at her teacher desk, at least for a while. Mrs. Haddix, the other English teacher on the committee, sat too far away for me to whisper to, which I usually do too much during meetings. The others were scattered throughout the room.
We are all a little tired. The newness of the year has worn off, the weather is turning gray, and our workload is more daunting than ever. New policies, old problems, different paperwork. Our feet hurt. Our hearts hurt. The kids are sleepy or grumpy, so are the teachers. Some of the kids are dealing with allergies and viruses. We all have issues at home. And then there’s the construction at school, which means displaced classrooms, blocked hallways, closed bathrooms.
At one point early in the meeting, as we discussed data monitoring and teacher collaboration, I monopolized the conversation with dozens of questions trying to understand something everyone else seemed to get. “But, Bridget, please explain to me again…” and Mrs. Wells, one of our principals, did. Then later as she covered important information about student data, I wrestled to keep my eyelids open. The numbers and charts on the overhead projector screen blurred. I thought of my students in first period who struggle the same way in the mornings.
Later we brainstormed together ways we could address specific issues in our school. We chuckled when Mrs. Wells wrote under the improvement column that Mr. Sayre’s ego was slightly smaller than it was, by his own admission. The rest of the conversation was necessary and productive, but a little heavy, only because a room full of talented, passionate educators were, like always, trying to find ways to move our school to as many stars as possible. The weight of the challenges in public education is carried by these kinds of teachers. It is a constant struggle for them, and for all educators, not to tumble under the overwhelming amount of work, public scrutiny, and limited resources. It is overwhelming and exhausting. And we were feeling it.
Then Mrs. Rhody, the practical and analytic Calculus teacher, said, “We need to remind our teachers that it’s okay to enjoy our students. We went into teaching because we love kids. They are why we are here. It’s okay to relax and just enjoy our kids.”
This was the best and most important comment made at the meeting. And the reason I decided to write this week about what goes on behind closed doors in education, at least at my school. And one of the hundreds of reasons I am proud to be a teacher at Anderson County High School. We’re not perfect, but we do care about what matters most—our students. With so much against us, we are trying hard to be excellent for our students, even when they have gone home for the day and we are in a meeting.
There is no way I am going to be a perfect teacher tomorrow or finish everything on my to-do list. However, I can absolutely do what Mrs. Rhody wisely reminded us to do. I can enjoy my kids.
This past Thursday as soon as my fifth period started, I turned off all the lights and walked to the back of the room. My puzzled students watched me, the sun coming in from the window their only light. “I have nothing for you today. I have a terrible migraine. Please be quiet and leave me alone.” I sat down in a chair in the back corner of my classroom, bookshelves on both sides. “I love you guys very much,” I mumbled. I’m not sure if any of them heard me. I leaned me head back and closed my eyes.
For the next hour I remained in this state. I drifted in and out of a light almost-slumber, the soft noises of bits of conversation creating a kind of white noise. The pain behind my left eye continued to push against my skull and throb relentlessly. I felt weak and dizzy, slightly sick on my stomach, and completely exhausted. I had been fighting the pain all day, doing my best to keep teaching despite the stabbing ache on the entire left side of my head. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
This is what teaching looks like some days. Like so many other professionals, I cannot always go home or leave my post. Sometimes I must work through the pain. So many teachers come to work sick or hurting. Unlike some other jobs where we might be able to hide away or use the restroom at will or take a break, in the classroom we are always on. We just keep teaching because we feel like we have to, or maybe we really don’t have much of choice.
I am thankful to have students who are kind enough to let me sit down and trustworthy enough to let me close my eyes for a while. Had I attempted to do any instruction, I very likely would have thrown up or passed out. Even so, I still felt like a loser teacher.
I had to call in the following day. I was reluctant to do so. I have plenty of sick time, and those days belong to me to use when I am sick as stated in my contract, but I still felt guilty. Not even out of bed yet, my face shoved into the pillow, trying desperately to will the excruciating pain away, I thought about the other teachers who would likely have to cover my classes all day. Like so many other districts all over the nation, we have a teacher and a substitute shortage in my county. Teachers are routinely asked to give up their planning periods to watch other classes. I am blessed to work at a school where, even though we clearly see how unfair it is, we help each other with genuine kindness. I also thought about my students. I emailed instructions for them to work on an on-going project, but I was still robbing them of important education time because I was not there. I was letting everyone down.
I will make it up to my students tomorrow, when I teach them well. I will be standing and awake, clear-eyed and excited. I will make it up to my colleagues by being there for whoever needs me tomorrow or the next day or the next.
Until the next migraine, when the pain and guilt will inevitably return. Until then, I will enjoy the light.
I used to despise Sunday nights because of Monday morning. I was filled with dread before I even lay my head down for the night. I got out of bed on Mondays looking forward to when I could go back to sleep.
I could not control the existence of Monday. It was going to happen. Again and again and again. In fact, Mondays will take up a little than 14% of my life. I had to figure something out.
Looking forward to Friday was not working. Wishing away my days was not effective or healthy. Being in Monday and wishing it were Friday only made me sadder. And I lost sight of what was happening in front of me. I was somewhere other than now, and that was not good for anyone.
Just getting through, a tactic used by many, was not working either. I found myself complacent in my grumpiness, almost excusing my bad attitude and sluggishness. It’s Monday, whatever, I can’t help it. This was contagious. I was infecting all the people around me.
I tried to just pretend to be okay with Monday. But I’m not such a great actress. And while that might have made the people around me feel a little better, it did absolutely nothing for me. I still felt horrible. But I was smiling.
Now, I am doing something different. Part of my therapy for OCD was mindfulness training, which included living my values and living in the present. I breathe deeply and methodically, making myself keenly aware of my own thoughts and surroundings. I try hard to focus on this moment, literally, and only this moment. And I try to appreciate it for what it is, nothing more, nothing less. I remind myself of my values, which give me purpose and clarity.
Using mindfulness techniques has helped so much with living with OCD, I thought I would try it on living with Mondays. So as the new week begins, instead of allowing myself to be negative as a default, I am intentionally aware of my values and live them out. I approach the new day with enthusiasm and excitement, with energy and expectation. I try to be mindful of reasons to smile so that when I do, it is genuine.
This does not mean I am happy-go-lucky and in a perpetual slap-happy good mood. Sometimes I get angry or tired on Monday. Sometimes I am stressed to the point of being overwhelmed. And usually I am completely exhausted when I get home from work.
But it’s different now. I have given myself permission to be in a good mood, to enjoy the day, and to not dread its arrival or look forward to its departure. I have given myself permission to love Mondays, because it is more than 14% of my life. That it too much life to not enjoy. I want to be present, deliberate, and alive for all of my life. I do not want to spend my days wishing them away. Because one day I will run out, and I will long for the more Mondays.
Of course, I must admit that I have it easier than most people to find reason to be cheerful on Mondays. I spend my days with interesting, intelligent, kind teenagers who make me smile. I get to talk about great writing and literature. I get to learn philosophy with my kids and practice speaking skills. I get to discover new ways of understanding the world and watch students gain new understanding, too.
Mondays get better as soon as my students show up. When I am at work, my students are who I value most, and they are who give me the greatest joy in my classroom.
I have 115 reasons to look forward to Monday.
I am not going to write about how teachers are over-worked, even though they are. I’ve already written about the long hours, the stacks of grading, the unrealistic expectations, the impossible demands, and the exhaustion and guilt from all of this that ultimately creates burnt out or former teachers. Instead, I am going to write about balance.
Balance is why I’ve not published a blog in a long, long time. It’s why our toilet in the guest bathroom is still not fixed. One of the shudders on the window above the garage is still missing. It’s at least partly why I’ve gained a little more weight over the last three months (that, and a slowing metabolism and increase in consumption of calories). There are cobwebs in the corners of my house and my accent tables hold more dust than pictures. Two-thirds of my boys are so overdue for a haircut that I have forgotten what their ears look like. Balance is why my kitchen is nearly empty and why I fear I might have forgotten how to cook entirely. It’s why I haven’t touched my new violin in weeks and weeks.
Balance says that other things take priority: my health, my husband, my children. Watching my sons play soccer or football is more important than scrubbing the baseboards. Going for a jog with my husband is more important than vacuuming. Putting out the fall decorations and shopping for birthday presents and spending time with my parents and parents-in-law—these are all more important than figuring out that new violin.
And my family is more important than a job, no matter how important that job is.
For decades teachers have been told otherwise. We have been fed the very noble idea that teaching is more than a career—it is a calling, a ministry. We have been led to believe that if we don’t work hours and hours at home, sacrifice time away from ourselves and our family and friends, then we are not truly devoted to our students.
But this way of thinking disrupts that balance. When we put teaching before everything else all kinds of unfortunate things could happen. We could become burnt out and bitter. We could ruin our health. We could have to live with regret because we took too much away from our family to give to our job.
This is not to say that teaching is unimportant. I know that what I do every day matters. I love my students and their success means worlds to me. I take what happens in my classroom to heart because those people sitting there have immeasurable worth. I feel privileged to be their teacher and work very hard to be the very best I can for them.
But our students do not benefit when the balance is off. We must teach them by example. More than teaching them academic content and skills, we have the opportunity to teach them what good living looks like. When we sacrifice too much of ourselves for our job, we cannot be our best selves. When we spend too many hours working too hard, our teaching will suffer.
So today I went to church with my family. Then I drove my nephew back to his mom, and we visited for a few minutes. When I got home, my twelve-year-old and I watched a movie together. I wrote a few letters of recommendation for my students and took care of some work emails. I listened to music with my fifteen-year-old. I took a nap, then took my sixteen-year-old to soccer practice. I cooked dinner, graded a few essays, played Spider Solitaire on my computer. My husband and I watched an episode of BBC’s Sherlock with our boys. Then I spent a few minutes going over tomorrow’s lesson plans while my son cuddled next to me in my polka-dot chair and my bulldogs napped on the floor close to my feet. And I smiled and looked forward to the week.
I didn’t worry about the cobwebs or the missing shudder today. And I didn’t get all the papers graded.
But my family and my students know I care about them. And I feel good.
This weekend we were in my mother’s kitchen. My mom, my sister, my grandmother, and me. “She got tarred of me pesterin her, so she finely let me hep her,” Mamaw was talking about her own mother, from a time when Mamaw was only ten or eleven, she said. “Then she’d roll me outta bed evry mornin from then on to make biscuits.” She laughed at this. Gina, my sister, gathered everything she needed to make Mamaw’s biscuits: flour, oil, and buttermilk. Mamaw stood opposite my sister, on the other side of the counter, ready to give instruction.
Gina had been planning this for days. My family is going through a difficult time right now. My Papaw just spent a week in the hospital for surgery. Now he and Mamaw are staying with my parents as Papaw continues to recover. Mamaw has dementia and Alzheimer’s, which complicates everything. That Gina wanted to do something to help did not surprise me. She is a nurse and has a nurse’s personality: she is a caregiver and has a servant’s heart. For the months before my other grandmother passed away, Gina helped care for her in countless ways. When medical emergencies arise, I usually call Gina first.
So she had decided that Mamaw would teach her how to make her homemade biscuits today. Mamaw’s biscuits are famous in our family, and rightfully so. They are delicious. Golden, crispy on the bottom, fluffy and light on the top. They are perfect for jelly or gravy or just butter. They taste like my childhood, and my mother’s childhood, and her mother’s, and hers before her. Mamaw’s biscuits taste like family and love and legacy.
That’s why the recipe cannot be written down. That, and Mamaw doesn’t really use a recipe. “Okay, now just dump three or four cups a flour in there, or whatever, just til it looks right, ya know.” But it takes a skilled and knowing eye to know what it’s supposed to look like. Even the temperature of the oven is not exact. When Gina asked her what to set the oven to, Mamaw responded with “You gotta cook em fast. The faster the better.” 450? “Oh, I dunno. Whatever you think. Just gotta cook em fast.”
It requires a skilled hand to know how much the dough should be kneaded. Gina slapped the lump of dough onto the counter and pressed the heel of her hand into it, and again. Mamaw watched from the other side of the bar. “Yeah, that’s right.” She nodded. “Don’t mess with the dough too much. But be rough. Tell that dough who’s boss.” As Gina slammed the dough onto the counter, Mamaw laughed, more than I had seen her laugh in weeks, maybe months, possibly years. The more instruction she gave, the more of my grandmother I saw, before her dementia made thinking and remembering difficult. She was not confused, she was not absent in her own lost thought. She was there in the kitchen with us, being useful and having fun. Gina had given her something back she hadn’t felt in a long time: a purpose.
My sister continued following her instructions exactly, turning the dough just so between her hands while Mamaw looked on, her chin resting on one hand, her other hand pointing to where Gina had missed a spot. “Mmmhhm. That’s right. You got it.” She supervised with great importance and even greater delight. I admired the way my sister was taking care of my grandmother, how she was making her feel good, strong, and healthy. And all she needed was flour, oil, and buttermilk to do it.
Gina put the biscuits in the oven and fifteen fast minutes later, they were done. Mamaw bit into one, the crumbs falling from her lips. She closed her eyes, savoring the taste, and smiled. “Not bad for your first time.”
I had a challenging afternoon. I had to sift through old pictures of my sons, looking for soccer pictures of Jack, my middle son, in preparation for his upcoming 8th Grade Night. They were due last week, but I did not want to do it. This afternoon, I finally forced myself to go through picture after picture of my boys when they were younger. Cute pictures of chubby cheeks and big smiles. Silly pictures. Christmas pictures. Disney World and Toronto. Halloween. Joseph asleep beside Sam. Jack hugging Drew. Me, sitting on the floor, surrounded by little boys and toys and a pug. Hundreds of pictures. I was miserable.
I cannot look through my pictures right now without my anxiety going up. Even now, as I am typing this, my heart rate is up and I’m sick on my stomach, just thinking about the pictures. What should bring joy and sweet memories instead brings grief and near-terror for me. It is one of the many ways OCD intrudes on my life.
Let me try to explain what the OCD makes me think when I look at old pictures. That I can’t go back in time to when my children were younger is more than frustrating to me—it feels like death. And I worry that I didn’t parent them well when they were little, that they missed out on something. And so their futures are ruined because of me. I know this is not true, but it feels so real.
Looking through old pictures reminds me that I have forgotten so much, and that is simply tortuous to me. It hurts that I have forgotten most of their lives. Like everyone else, I have vague recollections and a few stories, but the day-to-day events of their early childhood has been swept out of my mind, and I fear I can never retrieve it, and so part of my children, and part of me, is lost forever. It is death. I fear that because I can’t remember everything, my love for them is not complete. I fear that they will not know I love them. More lies that my brain makes feel true.
The pictures make me feel guilty. I did not take enough pictures. I lost all our home videos. I am not taking enough pictures and videos now. I could have, should have, done more and should do more now. I am failing as a mother. The pictures tell me this.
So I can either avoid the pictures or I can look through each of them, tediously reconstruct the moment in my head, try my hardest to remember so my kids will know I love them. I can search the whole house—again—for my home videos. I can cry over lost time and forgotten memories. I can take too many pictures, so many that I forget to enjoy what is happening. I can do all of this, and I have many times, or I can just avoid looking at pictures.
Maybe there will be a day when I can look at old pictures of my children and not have a panic attack. I used to be able to. That’s the thing with OCD. It doesn’t make sense. It is not logical. And it twists and morphs and seeps into everything. I used to think it was compartmentalized—like this particular thing is an OCD issue. But I’m beginning to understand that it is not that at all. I can’t compartmentalize and seal it off. I have to live with it.
And I am in fact living with it. I am doing the little things that are difficult for me and not blaming myself for it being difficult in the first place, and I am ultimately finding joy in those little things. So even though this afternoon was challenging and uncomfortable, I did it anyway. And I was able to, amid my elevated heart rate and upset stomach, find joy in Jack’s cute little smile.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.