What it means to be a teacher

A teacher is anywhere education happens.

When I got my first (and only) full-time professor job, the dean that hired me told me I have “chalk in my blood.” I assume he meant that I came by this vocation honestly as a result of being the daughter of two teachers. If I trace back how it all really came to be though, it extends beyond my genetics.

As a little kid, my play was school. In our basement, we had a cool little desk, chairs and whatever cast off accoutrements my parents had at the conclusion of a school year — extra construction paper, pens, markers, pencils, unused gradebooks… I loved it all. Friends would come over and I always had a little project or assignment to give them and then, of course, a means of evaluating them (because I couldn’t wait to write their names and grades in the tiny squares of a manual gradebook). Even when I taught my first college course in 1999, I used a manual gradebook my dad gave me (and yes, I still have it).

We lived within walking distance to the school my dad taught at and I loved going to his classroom with him. He was one of the most precise, organized people I knew. Everything had a place and I loved the order of it all. He was the type of guy who put up his classroom bulletin boards for fall at the end of the school year in May. He would cover them in paper so that they wouldn’t get faded when the summer sun soaked through the huge windows of his classroom.

I also loved the teacher’s lounge at his school. Aside from the never ending stream of snacks in there, it also housed the mimeograph machine, and then eventually the copier. I loved the mimeograph machine. You had to have a carbon and you cranked the handle to make blue/purple copies for handouts. He would let me do it and I felt important making the materials for his students. (And if none of this paragraph makes sense, get to Googling).

My dad taught 5th grade for 34 years. It only occurred to me when I had kids old enough to be in 5th grade that my dad’s students never aged. He had kids the same age for 34 years! He had kids teetering on the edge of adolescent hell for over 30 years. Admirable and slightly crazy.

My mom taught special needs kids for 36 years. My mom loved her work and her kids. It takes a really dedicated person to teach kids with special needs who had to take the state standards and write goals for kids who can’t walk, talk, or communicate in ways that are typical for normally-abled folks. She sat at the kitchen table for hours trying to do her best to honor the dignity of her kids as she found a way to make the standards “work.” She was a fierce advocate for her kids.

I loved going to her school too. It was one town over from where we lived. Her school was different because everything was adapted for the needs of her students. This included swings that could accommodate wheelchairs, toys with adapted handles, and no blackboards. It felt more like home with ramps, and a warmth that was different than a typical, sterile school.

There’s so much that I’ve taken from both of them that carried over into my own teaching career.

In this crazy time of the pandemic, we’ve seen parents, grandparents and caregivers have to assume some of the role of teacher as kids are forced to do school online in distance learning.

I got to thinking what it means to be a teacher.

We already know that teachers come in many forms:

  • Early childhood

…clearly not an exhaustive list but to be a teacher certainly does not mean that you are just at the front of the classroom. A teacher is anywhere education happens.

For me, being a teacher has always been a vocation. I’ve joked that one does not get into teaching for the big paychecks. It is a calling. And, while I am no longer a traditional classroom teacher, I do get the opportunity to educate folks. Right now, it’s online. Perhaps after the pandemic, we will be back to in-person training.

Teaching also means bringing my heart to what I do. I can’t do it half way. I can’t pretend. There is no “going through the motions” to just get through it. This is a full body, mind and soul activity. It’s impossible for me to ignore if something is wrong in a classroom.

It is a privileged seat to be an educator. We sit in the front row and watch growth and change happen in people who want to better their lives. We also see opportunities squandered. When I witness that growth and change happening, it changes me as a person and leaves an imprint on my heart and in my brain.

Teaching certainly isn’t all rosy. I’ve had students die from illness and suicide and had to walk back into a classroom and tell their classmates. I’ve spent plenty of late nights toiling over the best way to educate and when that didn’t work, I went back to the drawing board. My heart has been heavy with the burdens my students often carry and trust me enough to bear witness to. I’ll spare this essay the insanity that comes in the forms of mandates from people who have never set foot in a classroom…

There have been spectacular heartaches as well as victories as a teacher. I’m grateful for all of it.

To those who find themselves teaching by default these days, hang in there. The work you are doing is hard and it is also worth it. Some days, that may not seem like the case when your patience is running thin.

My parents used to get a lot of gifts at the holidays from their students. One of my favorites was a mug that said:

“I touch the world. I teach.”

Inadvertent teachers — you are touching the world. Believe it.

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Truth-teller. Doodler. Teacher. Student.

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