When I leave school each day I carry with me a backpack of folders – frayed at the crease – with partially completed math worksheets and inked-over lesson plans. I carry seating charts and student trackers and gridded grade sheets. Occasionally I carry my laptop, if during class I needed to show a Powerpoint on Main Ideas, or Tibetan Mandalas, or Macbeth. In the outer pocket I have stashed away Advil, and Advil Cold & Sinus, and Tums. In the winter, I carry cough drops. I have extra pencil nubs, dulled at the point and crumpled confiscated notes caught mid-pass between students.
On the bus ride home my fellow teachers and I fall inevitably, and despite our best efforts, into discussing our students. How so and so had a rough day. How one particular child said something that made us laugh, or groan.
At home I find myself drawn to the worksheets. There is always grading to be done, always notes to students to be scribbled in the margins. There are tomorrow’s lessons to be constructed or revised or reinvented altogether.
When I sleep I sometimes have nightmares. I dream about classes gone horribly wrong: students walking in and walking out, my most disruptive students all together in one room, lost lesson plans, malfunctioning projectors. I dream about school days and field trips. Once, in a truly bizarre nightmare, I found myself defending students against sword-wielding Thai pirates from the back of a motorbike.
Teaching is a 24-hour job.
Ironically I doubt that we teachers exist for our students outside the classroom. Thinking back to my own middle-school days, I can’t recall ever considering the possibility that my teachers had their own lives, their own friends and their own hobbies. Now, from the other side, I see a striking dichotomy. For my students, I exist only within the confines of the classroom. Yet for me, my students are omnipresent.
I refer to them as my kids, as if suddenly I am a mother of eighteen. I have grown, over the past months, to feel responsible for my students – for their behavior, for their actions and for their success. If my students are disrespectful to others I feel personally responsible. If they are praised, I walk a little taller.
On the bus ride to work I carry with me my backpack, my folders, my lesson plans, and my students’ stories. Through bi-monthly phone calls to parents, we teachers become entangled in the lives of our students. I carry with me the stories of weekend birthday parties and trips to visit grandparents. And I carry with me stories of neighborhood shootings, of parents losing their jobs, of parents taking third jobs. Of parents working so long that they see their children for barely an hour a day. I hear of students’ friends becoming pregnant at eleven, of siblings being taken by social services, of teenage mothers, of single mothers, of more single mothers. I hear of cancer and I hear of substance abuse. I carry with me the despair of parents who are at a loss of how to help their child and I carry with me the desire of parents determined to see their children becomes the first in their family to go to college.
All of this I bring with me to school and leaving school. In between the two, in the few hours I actually spend with my students, I teach. I praise their poems and critique their writing assignments. I praise my students’ science grades, their vocab sentences. I compliment their new hairstyles or new jacket. I correct their behavior – remind them to sit up straight, to raise their hand, to not call out. Occasionally I pull them aside and speak sternly. I mediate conflicts between friends, between classmates. I compel my students to listen to each other, to not talk over each other, to work alone, to work in teams, to work together as a class. I hear their stories – at snack, on notes during math class, in quick conversations in the hall. I attempt to compensate in the classroom for all that I have heard from my students, from their parents, from the school, from the newspaper, in the hopes that if I can carry just a bit more, my students will be able to carry a little less.