There’s a little garden in the middle of the school where I teach, and there resides my three potted pals. I’m starting to think their presence is a must in any garden.
I’ve walked past them about a hundred times now, yet they never fail to put a smile on my face. While they may look rather spacey, those vacuous eyes belie great spiritual wisdom. “Why are you frowning? Be silly, be kooky. It’s a lot of fun!”
They jolt me out of any sense of self-importance that creeps in as the day goes by. I’ve learned that when we stop taking ourselves too seriously, it frees us up to take other people more seriously. Which is important in many vocations, and so good for the health of our souls.
During our training, we were told that students are far more perceptive than we’d expect. Students can tell if you don’t care, students can tell if you’re fake, students can tell if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. These are all true, but who knew they’d also sniff out my depression?
They didn’t exactly read it from my face, but there are plenty of other signs they could pick up.
I was in the hospital visiting a student who’s recovering from a traumatic injury (and overall near-death experience), when I decided to tell him about my history with depression. It thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about how we can commit to learn and grow from life’s tragedies.
But before I could elaborate, he cut me off: “Oh, I knew that. I saw that book you were reading.” He’s referring to The Catholic Guide to Depression (How many times have I referred to this book on my blog? You’d think I was getting paid to plug it…). I have a rather messy workspace in the classroom, and would leave my non-class-related things at random corners. Now I wonder how many students saw my little orange bottle of antidepressants.
On a separate occasion, I was letting my students know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be in school the following day. I didn’t expect anyone to bat an eyelid, but one of them began “badgering” me.
“I need to see my doctor tomorrow.”
“Oh, during the day? What’s wrong with you?”
“We can talk about this after class.”
“No, just whisper it to me.”
While his desk mate was paying no attention, I casually explained, “I will be seeing a therapist tomorrow. The first appointment has to be during the daytime. Don’t worry, I won’t have to miss school for this in the future.”
Of course, he wanted to know more, this time with a hushed voice and a look of concern in his eyes.
“Wait, so what’s wrong with you?”
“Just finish your work, and we can talk more after class, okay?”
The sweet boy just wouldn’t have it, so finally I whispered, probably against protocols of appropriacy, “I was diagnosed with depression. But don’t worry, it’s under control.” I did not expect him to whisper back, “Oh, I think I have that too.” But I’m thankful he did — otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to support him as comprehensively as I now can.
Sensing that there is much potential for this “secret” to be “used” for good in the classroom, I told another student. This particular student wasn’t struggling with anything particularly atypical of a high-schooler, but he struggled a lot with motivation. He found it hard to want to do anything that was difficult or unfamiliar, which you unfortunately encounter a lot in Math. I was getting a lot of “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I’m calling my mom” from this boy.
One day, I sat him down and told him about how hard it was for me to go through college while depressed. I shared this not to guilt-trip or shame him, but to explain how things would have turned out much different had I lived according to the mantra of doing only things that are easy or comfortable. I also shared how my deepest regrets from my younger days are exactly that: forgoing many opportunities for growth simply because they weren’t within my comfort zone. “You know, that’s why I still can’t ride a bike today.” That drew a chuckle, but I knew I finally had him in a way that would last a longer than my previous ‘life lectures’. The message was clear: we won’t grow if we’re never uncomfortable.
I believe there is room for vulnerability (in appropriate doses and at appropriate times) in the classroom. It makes you more human, a concept many students find difficult to grasp.
And it helps establish genuine relationships. Some believe it’s better to keep things “professional”, but I doubt that’s universally applicable. These relationships, in turn, will help you teach. Not just classroom material, but lessons in life and virtue.
At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen getting confused between simplifying algebraic expressions and solving algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to the root of the problem: they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.
My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?
Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big — no — monumental disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).
They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time kids spend in school. The average American child spends 1,260 hours in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.
Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford the results of classrooms operating like this:
As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their whole lives.
For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too afraid to find out the answer anyway.
I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.
I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:
1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.
2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.
And of course, acting upon those recognitions.
If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.