caring

It’s My Job to Care

I don’t remember much about her. She had moved to Texas from Florida, and had just made the move that I was only starting to think about: from substitute to full-time teacher. I think she had reddish hair. I am sure, though, about what she told me: “You have to love your students.” Nobody had ever told me that before, and I was, at that time, more than a year from taking my first full-time secondary teaching job. The simplicity stuck with me, even though it was a good long while before I had students of my own.

Schools pick up detritus from the waves of “awesome new things” that educational consulting companies market and districts invest in. There’s an inevitable series of trainings, and an inevitable  moment when something changes with district or campus or departmental leadership and a lot of those “awesome new things” get replaced by the newer, more awesome ones. (Really, the vast majority of these programs are simply wrapping fresh jargon around best teaching practices.)

Anyway. One bit of detritus that’s stuck at the high school where I teach is “We will/I will” statements. They’re meant to be a lesson frame: we do these things together, and I (meaning you, the student, who totally owns this statement) will be accountable for this other thing. “We will learn to apply the Pythagorean theorem to solve problems related to area./I will turn in activity 3.11 at the end of class.” It’s a frame that predates my time on the campus, and it kind of bugs me. Contrarian that I am, I’ve reframed them as “our job/your job”—what we’re doing together and what you’re responsible for as an individual. It works pretty well for me, but you’ll notice that it leaves out “my job.”

Teachers do a lot of jobs. I’m not getting back on this blog to talk about the nobility of the profession (though I believe in it), nor about how long-suffering teachers are (there are ups and downs in every job). Students will be back in my classroom in a matter of hours, though, and I want to talk about the most important part of my job: to care.

Last May, I had the chance to see the first group of students I taught graduate from high school. I spent my first year teaching in a public charter in East Austin. There was flailing, there were ups and downs. I might have done more crying than laughing that year, and spent most of it physically and emotionally exhausted. At the end of the year, I was the master of ceremonies for their eighth grade graduation. It’s a small enough school that I had taught English to all of them. Most of those same kids crossed a bigger stage four years later as high school graduates.

IMG_0052There was a different kind of crying.

Among the handshakes and hugs and incredulous exclamations, there were two people I really wanted to find. One was the student who had bribed me into dancing at the school dance by promising to do his homework. (I still have a picture of the two of us from that dance.) I had promised him that I’d come see him graduate, but we hadn’t spoken for years. As an eighth grader, this student was barely hanging on. I worried about him. He told me he was dumb, told me nonchalantly about things in his life that “weren’t that bad” when they obviously were. I was deliriously happy to see him get a diploma. I’ve got another picture of the two of us now—one that he had to take because I was only a month into smartphone ownership and couldn’t work the selfie camera.

The other person was a former colleague. When I was on campus, she taught reading to struggling students. She was also one of the people who helped keep a certain struggling me afloat in and out of the classroom. I wanted to thank her, to let her know I was still teaching. She was on the administrator side of the stage. I explained, in that not-quite-cursory way that you explain things when there are hundreds of people all trying to talk to each other, how much her help and that from my other colleagues had meant to me. I wish I could remember the exact words of her response, but it was something like, “we all knew you cared about your students.”

That meant more to me than anything else she could have said. That year was hard, y’all. I struggled. I was looking for answers on classroom management everywhere and not finding anything that worked for me. The AP who managed discipline had an honest-to-FSM intervention with me and my problem section. (I teared up trying to explain to the students how much I worried about them, which led some of them to make bets about whether I’d cry when I mc’d their eighth grade graduation.) The short version is that the year was hard in large part because I cared. I cared, and I wasn’t that good at the other parts of the job yet.

I’m better at those after a few more years of practice, but still: It’s my job to care. I could put it up on my whiteboard every day. That’s my first responsibility: to care about my students and, when they need it, care for them. Yes, I want them to learn to write a bloody thesis statement. Yes, I want them to be able to speak meaningfully about what they read and to make sure that their language never gets in the way of their ideas. Mostly, though, I have to care.

My department looks a lot different than it did last year. We have a lot of new faculty. For the first time since I arrived on campus, there’s been turnover on my own grade-level team. As I’ve gone through the last week and a half of inservice, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my job is—at least when I catch my breath between rounds of actually trying to do it. I haven’t come up with a better answer than “It’s my job to care.” It’s not the only part of my job, but I’m pretty sure it’s the one that all the rest of teaching builds on.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow I get another 150 people to care about. Even on the inevitable days I will ache for a magic wand to fix their troubles, I think that’s pretty awesome.