She sat there talking to me, and I heard what she said.
“Jan, I think you can get back into teaching if you view teaching as just a job – a job with the summers off. But if you’re going to get back into teaching to do what you can to do make a difference in the lives of your students, then I don’t think you can do it – especially if you’re going to try to teach for ten years. You won’t be able to survive. It will eat you up.”
My friend said words I knew to be true.
I nodded my head. I assured her that I was getting back into teaching as a means to an end. I wanted more time to be with my family. I wanted more time to write. I wanted to be able to leave town when hurricanes headed this way. I wanted to have holidays off.
I already had tried to make a difference. I promised my friend that I would do what I could to be the best teacher I could be, but I was not going to get all involved in the lives of my students.
I was not going to play social worker. I was not going to be a counselor. I was not going to spend free time or money coordinating, plotting and staging elaborate means to improve the chances of engaging students.
I was just going to teach.
I was going to make my plans, teach my classes and leave all of that stuff in the classroom when the bell rang and it was time to go home.
I promised my friend that I could do it.
Nine weeks back into my teaching career, I have one word for all of those intentions.
The factors that led to backtracking on my word don’t need much clarification, but they were crystallized for me Tuesday morning as I walked around the classroom working with students on an upcoming project. I caught a glimpse of a student’s binder. She had decorated the cover with curly-cues and arabesques and a surprising handwritten Bible verse that started with, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him….” While the remainder of the verse is up for interpretation, the part about feeding the hungry struck a chord. While my students are hardly my enemies (at least for now), so many of them are so hungry.
When I relayed my observation to another friend, she asked, “You mean for food or something else?”
My answer is that while many are hungry for food – for a variety of reasons starting with the simple fact that they’re teenagers, most of them are hungry for anything nourishing – food and beyond. Many of them don’t recognize the hunger, but it’s painfully obvious.
Feeding all of that is impossible. Attempting to do too much would, as my friend pointed out, suck the life right out of a person.
However, learning the details of some of the lives my students are leading and the choices they’re forced to make takes my breath away.
I know I can’t feed all of that, but I can offer a nourishing tidbit every now and then. My friend was right when she said that teaching can “eat you up,” but I also know it’s my responsibility – like any other teacher (or anyone else, for that matter) — to do what I can do to make the world a better place.
I’m under no illusions. I know I may make little to no difference, but what kind of place would the world be if we didn’t try?
(Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. She promises loyal readers that this will be the last teaching column for a while. E-mail her your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.)