I'd like to think that, like an Olympic torch bearer, I am beckoning all hopefuls to follow the flame as I dutifully lead them to the place of dream-realization.
Unfortunately, this is a more realistic picture.
When I went into this profession, I honestly believed that I would be the teacher to make a difference. I would inspire adolescents to love learning, and they would look back on their education and hallowedly speak my name as The One who made all the difference.
Nobody told me that the reality would be slightly different, with me admonishing the same 14 year old three days in a row for failing to bring a pencil, or that I would slump in my chair at the final bell wondering just why I thought I was cut out for this. Nobody explained that the kid in all black would cry out for attention in ways I had never seen. Nobody said that my heart would break when my student's mother died while he was in my class.
Teaching, in case you don't know, is not always leading a charge with a flame. It is pulling your charges towards a pinprick of light. It is not always inspiring; it is often excruciating.
So often, when the classroom clears and all that's left are long-forgotten, tooth-marked pencils, I feel defeated. More often than not, I leave the space where I thought I would make miracles and feel like I've just made a mess.
Today was one of those days. I know I explained the same concept 452 times in 452 ways, then had 452 questions from 452 students. It was (she says hyperbolically) exhausting. I looked back at the beautiful but now ragged lesson plan book, questioning where I made the mistake. Should there have been more differentiation? Would a group activity have been more effective? Surely there was a video that could have been a help.
The fault, I always assume, is my own.
This job gets hard when we forget that we're dealing with people. People who have free will, varying interests, and unpredictable behavior. People who can't always see that the now of a classroom affects the future of a life.
I so badly want to be Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers" or Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds." I want to be Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story." I want to change the course of lives and know that what I'm doing matters.
But the reality most days for teachers is that we're the tortoise in ye old parable. We plod on, ever so slowly, gaining what appears to be very little ground. We march forward despite feeling that we're losing this race. But maybe, just maybe, one day we'll look up and realize that we did win after all. Maybe we won't have turned a 15 year old aspiring dropout into the next Maya Angelou, but maybe we will have reminded a cynical youth that not all adults are out to get him. And we need to see that as a win.
I fail as a teacher when perfection is my aim. There really is no perfect lesson, just as there are no perfect students. There will be no perfect days. Heck - I can't even make a perfect bulletin board. Perfect is preposterous. Progress is attainable. Progress should be our goal.
When I look back at the hard days, the ones that left my lip quivering and my confidence dashed, they will be rendered meaningless unless I look for the small progress. And even on those hardest of hard days, there was some. There was the student who never speaks in class, but who sent a tender-hearted email asking if my daughter was feeling better. There was a colleague who thanked me for being firm but fair. There was the quiet English language learner who scored higher on the quiz than many native speakers. There was the tough school-hater who raised his hand instead of blurting out.
Even on the days when I feel like a failure, there is progress. There is someone closer to the light today than he was yesterday. There is someone who was welcomed and nurtured, even if my classroom was the only place it happened.
With so much talk of high stakes testing and standards being raised, I'm afraid that we might be forgetting the most important standards. The human ones. The ones that teach kids they matter. The ones that listen instead of lecture. The ones that believe that even the kid on your last nerve can become something great.
The best moments in room D-122 come when the lesson plan is pushed aside and my students become people. When I hear of their fears and frustrations with the system. When they are given a voice and allowed to use it in a place of safety. When they ask legitimate questions and I have to consider my own wrongness. The best moments come when we share life, not just a classroom.
The question plaguing me in all of my life right now is this: "What If?" And I must consider it for my students as well as myself. What if school were not about grades and papers but about preparation for hard times? What if every child knew he had an advocate who would walk through the fire for him? What if we relaxed rigid standards and raised serious expectations? What if we allowed interest to inform instruction?
I wish I had the answer to cure our education system's woes. I don't - because it's not simple. The best cure I have is for us to continue to care. When the bureaucrats ask us to see it all as black and white, right and wrong, I will fight for those kids in gray areas. When the policy makers who have never taught a class decide that standardization is the answer, I will close my door and do what's best for my kids. When the statisticians look at scores as the only indication of what's learned, I will look at the character of the students in my charge. When the government wants to pay me based on students' performance, I will fight like - well, you know.
For as long as I teach, I will continue to lead them to a light. No matter how small it may appear. No matter how imperfect I feel.
For as long as I teach, I will trust my gut and teach how I believe is best. I will do what I can to touch the heart as well as to teach the brain.
For as long as I teach, I will remember why I started. And it had nothing to do with test scores.
I will lead them to a light. Even if it's not Olympic-sized.