I’ve been teaching high school since the fall of 2002. I suppose teaching is the only career I’m going to have. I’m a mediocre teacher. Strictly junior varsity. On good days, I think I can explain things in a way most seventeen and eighteen-year-olds understand. I lecture too much, grade too little, don’t plan enough, tell too many stories.
I used to be so certain about teaching. I thought I was changing the world. But the world goes on without me and my students. Forces much larger are at play. I get depressed when I read the utter stupidity displayed in my local paper’s letters to the editor. I dread the day I realize some former student is the author of some ignorant screed.
Some former students have been wildly successful or moved into lives that are admirable, and impressive. Students have graduated from challenging schools, moved a world away, started families, taken over ranches, and made me proud that I know them. I’m not naive enough to think I have anything to do with their success. Certainly, teachers can help, but we are such a small process in the equation that includes parents and inner drive.
Last year a student attacked me and my teaching in an anonymous letter I found left on my desk. It devastated me. It’s been hard to forget when every time a student sighs, rolls their eyes or snickers under their breath, I remember that letter. It’s made me question everything I do, and don’t do. I thought this year would be the year that I dedicated myself to the passionate energy and brilliance I had when I began. I had an image of all the best practices I would adopt, all the lives I would inspire. The truth is on a good day I’m lucky to walk out of school feeling like I’ve made any difference.
Down the hall is the classroom of a junior AP literature teacher. He coaches policy debate and he often tells me what their debate topic is and I spit out some ideas supporting and attacking the prompt. Sometimes it is on a topic I know a lot about. Periodically he asks me to visit with his debaters and give them my take on a topic. I enjoy it, it’s usually an interesting topic that can be turned over lots of different ways. It’s fun to watch the kids wrestle with these hard issues.
Two days ago he told me that I was being awarded a “Friend of Forensics” award for my work with his team. Tonight they gave me the award. I struggle with praise, but it was nice to hear his kind words. It’s been hard to look other teachers in the eye this year, maybe this will make it easier.
As I sat listening to the debate team award ceremony I looked around and so many of the students I teach. Many of these students are students who compete with for my Model UN team, many are involved in my We The People Constitutional Debate team. Both of these groups performed extremely well for me this year. Maybe I am doing better, maybe I am changing lives. Maybe these kids are naturally talented. Maybe they are lucky. Maybe I’m lucky.
It’s hard to say. As the Stoics teach we know not when it’s all over. We should live our lives knowing that we might not get another shot. Maybe it’s all going to come together.