"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The (almost) Unbearable Sadness of Teaching

The texts started coming in early on a Saturday morning: "Did you read...?", "Isn't that the name of....?", "Wasn't he in Mrs.________'s class?" And, sadly, the answers were, yes, yes, and yes---the 20-year-old man who was being sought for an awful crime had once been a student at our school. This is the kind of outcome that none of us wants for our students, but it is one we sometimes live with nonetheless. The alleged criminal had last been a student at our school in sixth grade--his fifth grade teacher remembers a quiet, sweet-faced boy who she cannot quite connect with the crime he is accused of committing. She said she felt like she had been 'punched in the gut' when she heard the news--unfortunately, I knew what she meant--I had felt similarly short-of-breath and deeply sad when one of my former students was arrested last year. My grade partner said about the same situation that 'it hurt her heart', and I knew the feeling: many, many times teachers' hearts and spirits are battered by the things that happen to their students. I think it is one of the great, silent burdens of teaching: as uplifting as it can be on many days, you always seem to be waiting to have your heart broken--and you will. We are with our students many hours per day. We know their parents, siblings, grandparents, their struggles and triumphs, their favorite foods, what they are allergic to, what they worry about, and what they are afraid of, proud of, and wish deeply for. In many ways we are a particular kind of family. Like family, we see each other at our best and worst and somehow find something to like about each other every day. We drive each other crazy, make each other laugh, and stand up for each other, and when one of our own comes to a bad end our heart is broken a little. This is one of the costs of teaching, and most of us bear it, but sometimes the sad things come a little too close together, and we find ourselves thinking the cost is too high. Fortunately, those feelings are usually fleeting, and our students can also give us the will and strength to keep coming back every day. For most of us, our students live in our hearts and minds long after they leave our classrooms: we hope for them, believe in them, and want the best for them. When the worst happens instead we always wonder what--if anything--could have made things end differently. Too often, the answer is something that we could not control--and that is sometimes very hard to live with.