Another school year is over. Yesterday, I sat in a ballroom and watched a small group of students I’d worked closely with for the past two years give speeches and walk across the stage with diplomas in hand. I teach at a very small school– the graduating class was 13 students– and I had seen each and every one of those students struggle, mature, and shine over these two years, and seeing them graduate and symbolically move on to the next step in their lives filled me with such a sense of rushing pride that it was almost unbearable. After the ceremony was over– after the students stood up, turned to face the crowd, switched their tassels as we applauded, most of them holding back tears themselves– I let out a big, long, shaky sigh. The coworker sitting next to me, another English teacher, responded with, “Yeah, that about says it all.”
This was my third year in the classroom but the first teaching full time, and it was equally full of challenges and successes. The first semester, particularly, getting used to being around teenagers all day long and taking work home with me every night and every weekend, was tough; I loved my job but I almost constantly felt overwhelmed and stressed out, like I could never quite get my feet under me. Then, little by little, lesson planning became a little easier once I figure out what worked and what didn’t, and grading started to go a little more quickly, and I had a bit more much-needed free time during evenings/weekends. I started not letting things bother me so much (having a Type-A personality can be catastrophic when you work in a job that requires the kind of flexibility that mine does). By partway into the second semester, things had settled into a much more manageable rhythm.
[One of my biggest challenges this year was the fact that I had a particularly big and rowdy study hall, and it came at the end of each day when I was already tired and my patience was not always at its highest. A lot of energy was spent on class management just to get the kids to, like, sit in their seats and not yell or throw things. After an instance one day where something crazy happened– I can’t remember– I just put my head in my hands and sighed, too tired to even lecture them or give out detentions, and one of my other students tentatively offered up the information that they do weekly relaxation yoga sessions on Wednesday afternoons next door. Ahahahahaha.]
But as often as I was stressed out or tired or wondered whether the compensation is worth all the hard work, there are a million things that were wonderful about this year. I taught AP English and two sections of 11th grade, in addition to Creative Writing and Remedial Writing, and it was my second year having most of these students in class. One of the most rewarding things was watching students grow into themselves over the two years, to become more confident in who they are and in their work, to see students overcome their anxiety about speaking in class or to see their enthusiasm when they realized that, hey, reading can sometimes be fun, and writing too. At the end of the year, I had my students write reflective essays rather than taking an exam, looking back at their year in English class and thinking about what they were proud of and what they found most challenging, and setting English goals for the next year. It was wonderful to read their feedback on what they were proud of, especially; several of them wrote about how this was the first year they became invested in school and kept up with their homework, and one student wrote about how getting good grades in my class gave him the confidence to do well in his other classes.
Probably the thing that was most rewarding this year, almost to my surprise, was my Remedial Writing class. I was wary going into it– I had never taught remedial before, and I was worried that the students in it, who struggle with reading and writing, would be particularly unhappy about getting a double dose of their most challenging subject and it would turn into a year-long fight to get them to do anything– but it turned out to be fantastic. The wonderful administration made sure to keep the class small so I could spend a lot of time working individually with the students. (Out of all the bickering and conflicting theories surrounding education, the one thing I am absolutely convinced of is that class size matters. The smaller, the better; students who otherwise would slip through the cracks might actually have a shot at being successful if teachers have the time to sit down and work with them.) We went slowly and worked hard on pre-writing, drafting, revising, and editing until they had final products. The students showed up each and every day enthusiastic and ready to work, and I could see a marked progress in all of their skills over the course of the year. Students who literally could not write a paragraph at the beginning of the year were turning in polished, decently long papers by the end, with very little help from me. Watching them become confident in something that they had always struggled with before and being able to track their progress was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced. One of them told me once that I made writing easy, and I could not ask for a better compliment.
Teaching is tough, for sure; there are days when you’re just not sure you can put up with one more teenaged eye-roll or grade one more essay without losing your sanity. But it is, by far, the most exhilarating, satisfying, and challenging (in a good way) job I’ve ever had, and I love it. I love that I’m on my feet all day and that it demands every bit of creative energy I possess, that each day is different, and that there’s such possibility for the extraordinary because you never know when a student will surprise and delight you, from the tiniest things like a failing student turning in a well thought out essay to the big things, like watching your seniors receive scholarships to their top schools. I am looking forward to my summer break (I leave for South America in two days!), but there is already a part of me planning for and looking forward to next year.