In the summer of 1999, I worked at Engine House No. 9 (E-9) while finishing my master’s in teaching. People would ask what I was doing, and I would tell them that I was studying to be a high school English teacher. Immediately I’d get one of two responses.
“Oh! I’m a horrible speller. Don’t look at my grammar.” Or, “My teacher in third grade called me stupid, and that stuck with me to this very day.” Their reactions told me much, both about the person and our educational system.
Out of all the people I met that summer, an older man named “Bob” was the most adamant that the system was broken. Bob was a regular at the bar, wore dark lenses even inside the dim room, always had a five o’clock shadow and wore the same plaid flannel shirt. He’d sit at the same bar stool, never at a table, and order the same beer every night.
I’d sit next to him after my shift and argue about how all the new theories and democratic practices would change the school system. Bob liked to speak colorfully: “The system is messed up. Kids these days are getting away with all sorts of ‘stuff.’ When I was going to school, I had to get my ‘stuff’ together or I failed.”
My attempts to convince him were futile, but I was 23 years old and fresh out of college, hungry to make a difference and pay some loans. I convinced myself that my singular efforts would change the world.
The reality of teaching kicked my butt.
Imagine having a classroom of 31 students who come from different backgrounds with different levels of parental support and with different levels of comprehension and motivation. Coming into your class with a preconceived notion of your subject area, maybe loving or hating reading or writing, they look at you thinking, “She doesn’t know me, my family, or anything about my life. Why should I trust her?”
Based on just one hour of teaching and a decade of school experiences, these students can make sophisticated decisions about who you are and what they can get away with. Your challenge is to develop relationships quickly, because without relationships, there is no trust and therefore no teaching or learning.
So why keep teaching? I know for a fact that I’m making a difference in students’ lives. One student wrote me a thank-you letter after graduating from college and said he wouldn’t have made it there if I hadn’t been a part of his life. Another told me she was grateful for the caring and kindness I showed.
Too often, I focus only on the students who aren’t successful. I think they can all make it, so why not these ones. I want to touch every life, but sometimes I’m not the best fit. I now know it’s a team effort, and someone else on the staff will be able to reach that kid.
It’s easy to forget about the ones who do make it. In part, it’s hard to acknowledge these success stories fully. It’s like staring into the sun too long. My heart burns with pride and gratefulness that someone has truly seen me and affirmed the path I chose.
When it gets hard, I reflect on the past 15 years. I’ve learned that teaching is part sales, drill instructor, nurturer, secretary, accountant, public relations representative, cheerleader, pastor and entertainer. How do I put those skill sets in a résumé?
I remember the students and others who have encouraged me. Like a veteran teacher who told me she made it through 37 years focusing on one day at a time, then a week, a month, and pretty soon the year is over.
I’m learning that this profession is more marathon than sprint. To make it, I put one foot in front of the other.Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at caseyjosilbaugh@ gmail.com.