Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hidden Costs of Teaching

I am still learning. -Michelangelo

The real menace in dealing with a five-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old.  -Joan Kerr

Here's the story about the student who made me cry:

One of the first grade teachers routinely goes through the day without lunch, and every time that comes up, I think, man, I could not do that. I am SO hungry by 11:20 when I get to eat. (Let's be real, I'm supposed to have a 30 minute lunch each day, and I really only get 20, because I'm always running a little long with my students). This day, back in November, however, I found out what it's like to go without lunch. And I was surprisingly fine, on the stomach front. When normally my stomach is declaring mutiny by 11, that day it was shockingly silent. And while I don't mind missing a little of my lunch to finish an activity with a student, lunchtime is necessary to recharge for the afternoon. My schedule is exhausting--every 20 minutes I work with another student, with no transition time built in. I need lunch not just to satisfy my stomach, but to take a breather.

While physically I was shockingly okay, I was emotionally drained, not getting a chance to take a break, because I spent it with a third grade student who I've been having some trouble keeping her motivated and focused on the task at hand. We had our 20 minute session per usual...which extended through my lunch. When she makes a mistake/gets to a word she doesn't know/has trouble with an assignment, she shuts down. Instead of working it out, learning what it is and moving past it, she gets agitated and frustrated, where her performance declines greatly. Every other day though, she does fine, so I don't really know what sets it off. The day before she started crying during our session. She gets discouraged because she's in 3rd grade, reading closer to a 1st grade level. This session she started crying again. She went off about how I wasn't really a teacher, she didn't like reading, she didn't like reading with me, we did boring things, she reads at home why does she have to come with me blah blah blah.

I tried to give her a pep talk. I asked if there was anything I could do to make it better for her. I told her that it's okay to make mistakes, no one reads perfectly the first time, that reading is hard, that I get it--I've struggled with things too. (Perhaps I exaggerated my school struggles--I was a good student, and learning and school came much more naturally to me. But she doesn't need to know that.) Still, I got to a point, about halfway through my lunch, where I couldn't think of anything else to say. And she sat there with her head down, crying a little. And I could tell I was tearing up, so I went silent.

I tried so hard to keep it together--but the tears just started coming, and, well, it's hard to hide it when I had to wipe tears from my cheeks. Which of course makes her feel even worse. She freaks out a bit and gives me a hug and just starts sobbing into my shoulder. I told her it's okay and we just kinda hugged and cried for a bit. Finally, I tell her that I need to go--I have maybe 5 minutes of lunch left, and I say, I'm not mad, I'm just trying to do what's best for you, and I know we don't do the most exciting things, but I like reading with you, and want to help. She returns to her class in tears, and I go wash my face in the bathroom. I pull myself together and go read with my next student.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the verge of tears. I ran into the 3rd grade teacher later and she asks me what happened--this student was crying through recess, and all she would say is that she made someone else cry. Well, that was me, and here come the tears again. The teacher gives me a hug, and reassures me, and says well, there's definitely a teacher in you, already crying about your students. I go to my next class to pick up a kindergartner and the teacher asks if everything is okay, tells me not to take it personally and that I'm doing a good job. One of her students asks "Why is Miss Amy crying?"

At the end of the day, I got a (very poorly spelled) apology note from my student, so that was sweet. And the next day my student had a spectacular day. Since then, it's been ups and downs, but I think my tears got across a message that my words couldn't. It's still not perfect, but no more tears, on my part at least. Teachers have to keep so much bottled up for their students, and not let them realized how frustrated or on the verge of tears they might be. Maybe I shouldn't have cried in front of a kid, but sometimes what can you do? It's not a weakness, I'm actually usually pretty good at holding back tears. It's just that I'm only human.

It helped to have those teachers reassure me that it's not just me, that I can't take things personally and that I do a good job. Knowing I have their support means the world, because while I'm pretty disconnected with the other teachers--I just work one-on-one with students, they've got my back. I don't know what I'm going to do with this student. I don't know what to say to help turn her attitude around, to keep her going during our session, or if I even said the right things. But man, it is exhausting. Just from one of my 17 students. It's not like I have easy students, but I'm lucky--I love the kids I work with, melt downs and all. But you get so invested in each and every one, it drains you. There's only so much you can do. That day was rough, possibly the roughest I've had, but by no means the worst. It just made me realize how invested I am in my job, and how much my kids mean to me.


  1. it's a tough but critically important job. stay strong, friend!

  2. Thanks so much for posting this! It's a really wonderful essay and I'm glad I had the chance to read it.

  3. This is a really touching story. Also while I was never terribly far behind, I was still struggling with language into second grade. So I hope your student is able to turn the corner as well.