We’re going to bring it home by bringing it back to the kids.
Lesson 23: You’re no help to anyone if you can’t draw the line and demand the space and time you need to keep yourself happy.
S--- brought me ice cream today. He remembered that I liked the strawberry best from the combination he brought me a few weeks ago.
S--- has a tremendously hard road. He is a giant of a boy, climbing to nearly six-feet in the fifth grade. He is ungainly and unathletic. For weeks, little second graders would chase him about the playground calling him “King Kong” until finally their teachers intervened. In addition, he is not Latino, but a vegetarian Indian, marking him for misunderstanding at the least, mockery more often. For a third strike, he was slow to adopt deodorant as a necessary part of pubescent life and his body odor led to him being shunned and teased throughout last year.
I have done my best to help S---, to provide a safe space for him in the classroom, to provide opportunities for him to shine and gain status, and also to help him understand the decisions he makes that push people away from him. But he has driven me slowly to madness.
As recess is a time of intense awkwardness and unhappiness for him, he is always the last to leave the classroom. On days of less patience and more yard-duty, I will find myself shouting at him to stop stalling and dawdling at his backpack and get out the door. As I walk back and forth across the campus, he is quick on my heels with questions and concerns. He is the kind of student who waits for you at the bathroom door. He never forgets an agreement I make with him or the class, and should it be called into question, he will hound me about it incessantly.
One of these occasions was the school science fair. A mandate came down late in the year: all schools were to have a science fair. This is a questionable call in a school district where parental participation is telescopically far from a guarantee. We decided to make ours optional, and of course, only a handful of students signed up. S--- was one of them. S---‘s parents had been spending a lot of time on the road, so I was surprised to see his name on the list.
Then, a week after the sign-ups, S--- began demanding that I help him. It dawned on me that in his eyes, the science project was another way to draw more attention from his teacher. I greeted this realization with a deep sigh, a bit of sadness, but a firm refusal to help. I wouldn’t do it. This was late April, I was spent and the only reason I could be a good 8-3 teacher was that I was no longer being a 7-4 teacher. I was still in the classroom 7-6, but I needed the extra before- and after-school hours to recover and prepare for the regular school day. So I drew the line. I told S--- he just had to do it at home. He tried. It was terrible.
But the world didn’t explode. S--- didn’t quit school, start crying, or even look all that disappointed. I kept my sanity. He learned a lot less about science, but the forty or so other kids I work with learned a lot more from their vastly happier teacher.
I drew the line earlier in the year too. The wedding and move-abroad planning coincidentally peaked in January, and I found myself struggling to come to school and come home with a positive attitude. I was quickly becoming the tired and hot-tempered teacher from whom no one can learn anything. So I reluctantly dropped my four-day a week morning intervention program, helping needy second graders learn to read.
It was heart-breaking. I knew the kids needed me. The Man had once said their parents and teachers were counting on me. But I also knew that my first responsibilities were to my own family and my own students. I still feel a stomach-punch of guilt every time I see the second graders I wouldn’t help on the playground. Yet as I have watched myself recover and regain my focus, I know I made the right decision. Just before testing, I was able to resume a morning program and help the fourth graders pass math. I felt refreshed and ready from my little break.
The image propelled in the media of teacher as limitless super-hero does a grave disservice to young teachers. We imagine that we must work as hard as Esquith and be as successful as Escalante. And when we’re not, we want to quit and many of us do. TFA’s notions of relentlessness and its two-year time frame doesn’t help any, either.
So, my fellow young teachers, they’ll never make a movie about me or you, but if teaching an hour less means you teach twenty years more, let yourself make the right decision and draw the line.