It's 2:47 on a Friday, this one being a teacher workday. I am sitting down, in my recliner, at home. As we speak, there are still a bunch of teachers at my school logging hours, planning for next week and doing the myriads of unending tasks that teachers have to do. But I'm not there. I'm home.
We were given permission to leave today at 2:15 since we spent an evening at school a few weeks ago for Open House. I had permission to leave - yet I feel guilty. This, my friends, is the real life of a teacher. We never don't feel guilty about something.
I feel guilty because I was the only person walking out the door at 2:15. The parking lot was still full, and my own to-do list wasn't finished. My supply cabinet really needed to be reorganized, and the nonfiction unit I'm doing soon still needs some work. My bookshelves are dusty, and I should have emailed that parent. Ugh - yep. I probably should have stayed later.
But I didn't. I chose to come home to my elementary-school-aged children and spend some time with them. (I'm a rebel, aren't I?) I chose to try to turn my school brain off for a little while and not be driven mad by the ever-increasing demands placed on me - us - including the new requirements we learned about in the meeting this morning. I chose to go out for lunch with my friends, and I chose to leave today as soon as I could. And I'm trying to be ok with that.
But you know why it's hard to be ok with that? Because teachers are constantly judged, and the criticism is loud and stinging. We are judged by parents - "My child has never made a C before, so you must be the problem." We are judged by other teachers - "Ew, I never teach that story. The kids think it's so boring." We are judged by administrators - "Mrs. X was at school even though she was sick. Let's all try to be like Mrs. X." And please don't forget the community - "Kids today can't read and write. I just don't know what's going on in that school." From every direction, teachers are judged, but the harshest judgments are those that come from ourselves.
Yes, we teachers know that we have a million eyes on us. We know that there is nothing more important than influencing the life of a child, so the million eyes have a right to be on us. That's fair. But the brightest spotlight we feel is the one we turn on ourselves. On the whole, teachers are a group of perfectionists. You might not be able to tell by looking at some of our desks, but we want to do things right. We want to be on the cutting edge of research and technology, and we want to be the teacher that a high school senior remembers fondly. We feel like crying when a lesson bombs, and we hurt when our kids just can't get it. We have file cabinets full of old lessons, but we create new ones every year so they'll be just right. We look in others' classrooms as we walk down the halls, and we feel insufficient because of what we see. We peek at the study guide left in the copier, and we groan inwardly when we realize ours is not nearly as good.
We are constantly judged - but the worst judgments are our own. They bring a guilt that feels inescapable. On a daily basis, I might feel badly about any (or all) of the following:
* I can't get to school before 7:15 because of having to take my own kids to school. That teacher gets here every morning at 6:30 when the building opens.
* I forgot to make these copies yesterday afternoon, so now I have 46 seconds before the bell rings to get them run off.
* That bulletin board has been up since August. It really needs to be changed.
* The 72 essays I collected three days ago haven't been graded, and both kids and parents are checking Parent Portal to see if the grades are there. They aren't.
* Having to say, "We don't have enough time to finish this story in class, so you guys will have to finish it on your own tonight. I know - I'm sorry. But there's not enough time."
* That student from 4th period last year was arrested last night.
* The technology I was awarded through a grant is probably wonderful - but I haven't had enough time to learn to use it well yet.
* Student X doesn't have access to the internet at home, and no one in his family was willing to take him to the library. His paper, therefore, isn't typed. Which was a requirement.
* I forgot to show the school news. Again.
* This poetry packet I need to copy is 15 pages. I know that's a lot of paper, but the poems in our textbook are really bad...
It just goes on and on. In the course of one class, I feel so inadequate to meet the demands of every student. There are kids with learning disabilities, kids who barely speak English, kids whose baby sister is fighting cancer, kids who have no high school graduates in their families, kids who have no books on a bookshelf at home, kids who did not get enough to eat today, kids who cannot afford the supplies they come without, kids with struggles I can tell are there but cannot figure out... The education system has evolved to hold teachers accountable for students and their performances, and believe me, we feel accountable. I feel responsible for things I cannot change and cannot control, and it leads to a feeling of all-consuming guilt most days. We teachers never don't feel guilty.
Part of learning to be a teacher is learning to live with the guilt. It's understanding that at the end of the day, if we've done all we can do - academically and otherwise - then we can go home and be satisfied with our day's work. It's realizing that we can't change everything for a child. It's understanding that no matter how hard we work - or how late we stay - there will always be someone doing more or working later. Part of being a good teacher is going in your classroom, closing the door, teaching your heart out, and then going home to recharge. Part of being a good teacher is getting out of the school and being just you. Even with a little guilt following you as you leave.