When the Rug is Pulled: Humility, Identity, and Other Such Things

When I first began my teaching career in 2011, I prided myself on two things: my ability to connect with students and my classroom management. I wasn’t always the best lesson planner or designer of rubrics, and I certainly wasn’t always fired up about professional development and the state of education, but I could create and run a pretty healthy, happy classroom, where, in the past tense words of Sister Sledge, we were family. 

Since I was a teenager, I have connected well with children. I have a younger half brother and sister who have often felt like my own kids to me, and participating in their lives has been a joyful highlight of my own life. I spent my teens and twenties babysitting and nannying, working at camps and assisting in the classroom. Kids always gravitated toward me and wanted to talk. I made them laugh. I told them not to worry. I was never cruel. I knew how to wrangle them, and I knew how to speak to them.

When I first entered the teaching world, I will admit I had a bit of an ego about being a “favorite teacher.” Chalk some of it up to starting my career so young (while in my first year sober – am I a masochist?) and not being as comfortable in my skin; of course I wanted to be liked, and of course I wanted to be the best. But I also knew I was good at it and that to many students, I was a favorite. I remain deeply passionate about literature and writing, and I’ve got presence as an educator with a creative, silly streak, and I believe these traits carried into my ability to make learning in middle school English inspiring and rich. So yeah, the kids dug me. At least most of them. Classroom management also came naturally. My room was calm, students redirected well when off task, I rarely had to raise my voice, and the environment felt safe and positive. Not always, but pretty darn often.

My last year of teaching at my former private school in 2015 was, in terms of student connection and creating a remarkable classroom environment, the highlight of my career thus far and an experience I will never forget. I formed incredibly special bonds with the majority of my students; a handful of the girls in particular did become a sort of family. One had me over for family dinner and (lucky her) I took her to Disneyland twice. I attended several of their birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, and a group of them dropped by one evening while in my neighborhood to say hi and catch up. Dozens of them have kept in touch with me regularly through email and social media. They have been consistently warm, kind, interested, and so so dear. What a blessing to have such a positive impact on students just entering high school. I have tried my best to always be supportive, loving, and a positive role model. I believe I have succeeded.

Now, there is plenty I have done that hasn’t been perfect. I can be moody and reactive when tired and worn out, which isn’t easy to manage when you’re handling full-time teaching and dealing with parents, colleagues, and administration. I’m introverted and prefer to work alone and therefore am not the world’s best collaborator. I still don’t get crazy hyped about the next new craze in education. (Must we keep reinventing the wheel?) I am well aware of my weaknesses as a teacher and individual – but I was pretty darn confident I had the student thing down…

Well. Expect the unexpected, and don’t get too comfortable thinking you know your place. The rug can get pulled.

I left teaching in 2015 to take a nice long break and explore some other options. Needless to say, I found myself taking on a job this past January as a long term substitute for another sixth grade English class. The gig was to be four months, decent pay, not too far from work, and totally my wheelhouse. Middle schoolers loved me. Sixth grade curriculum was a breeze. I could see if I really did in fact miss the classroom. It would be awesome.

It has not been awesome.

It’s difficult admitting that. Not only does it go against the whole be always positive and grateful! shtick of today’s recovery culture, of which I am a (grateful) member, but it is hard to not feel like a complete and utter failure for not having the same experience with my current students that I had in the past. It has been painful, in fact, because the connection is what I am good at, and the connection is why I do it, and the connection has not, at least with a large chunk of the students, been there. The overall vibe has been aloof.

I’d say it’s the perfect storm type of situation for why this current position has been such a trying task. I came in halfway through the school year as a long-term sub and didn’t get to set the tone and structure of my classroom. Much of the curriculum was not my own creation. The school culture was, in many ways, very different (and in major need of overhaul.) The community just wasn’t the same. The kids weren’t buying in. Most of them couldn’t care less about establishing a connection with me or other teachers. All of this made me feel super shaky, not on my A game.

Despite of course having unstable moments in my past position, I was mostly a highly confident teacher, strongly rooted in my presence and voice and command of the classroom, as well my warmth and spirit. I was also at a school that put tremendous stock in building community, respect, and positivity. I look back on it now with such reverence, and though I don’t regret moving on to travel and try out some other ventures, I certainly can knock myself in the head a bit for having gripes about too much “social/emotional learning.” Tedious as it might have been at the time having morning advisories and assemblies on a daily basis, damn it if it didn’t get the job done.

Or you know, maybe it wasn’t just that. I taught eleventh grade for my graduate work, and there was zero of the fluffy stuff, and those kids threw me a party and baked me a cake when I left, and told me how much I had changed their lives (and a handful of them still email me today to let me know how their early twenties are going.) So, who knows. Who knows why it hasn’t gelled in this current position. It is likely due to a variety of factors or maybe simply a humbling experience I needed to have.

I think, mostly, I needed to learn to be less swayed by external circumstances and how people respond to me, to not let codependency seep so insidiously into my teaching. I needed to learn to stand strong in my conviction, rather than be overly accommodating; I did try too hard to adapt to the culture (of which I am philosophically opposed) and so I never quite found my footing, and then it deflated me and took my power with me.

It’s no easy task, to stand so strong. I’ve always been an empathic, mercurial, chameleon-like creature. The outside world can zap me, and I feel too much of everything, and though that’s a certain type of strength, it’s not the best recipe for running a classroom. (Even with my beloved classes, I was regularly drained.) In many ways, I feel I have done a very, very average job. I haven’t had the energy or fervor to go above and beyond. But maybe that’s the lesson, too – sometimes not being so good at something, and seeing that this has nothing to do with my inherent worth or goodness.

Do I love my current students? You bet I do. (Most of them.) They’re kids. They rub off on each other. A few bad apples can spoil the bunch. But has it been awful at times? Indeed, it has. They have broken my heart with their meanness and cynicism, their eye rolls and back talk and smirky defensiveness, their missing manners and absent appreciation, their entitlement, complaining, and lack of warmth. it has, at times, made me cold and angry and unappreciative. I have tried so hard to transform it or else not let it get to me, but I am only human, and when you try and keep failing, it gets to you. Teaching is a hard enough job when the kids are loving and happy and on your side.

Do I regret it? Of course not. It has been a supremely humbling learning experience, and it has helped me ask myself, who am I when I’m not a great and loved teacher? Well, I’m still me, and I’m still loved. I have grown more in the past four months as an individual than I have in quite a while. It has forced me out of my comfort zone and to confront some old demons and difficult patterns, as well as to learn even more how to be kind to myself while in the midst of discomfort. It has shown me how much better able I am at withstanding something difficult; in my first year of teaching, it would have leveled me. I didn’t yet have the sturdy internal foundation and faith to transcend difficult emotions. And it reminded me that I don’t quit or give up, and that even when I don’t do my best job and the stars don’t seem to be aligning, I can still do a pretty good job. I can still show up, because that’s what I’ve learned to do when I make a commitment, even when every inch of me wants to run and hide.

I’m done on Friday. I hope to finish with gratitude and kindness in my heart. Who knows, I might walk out of there with barely even a thank you and burst into tears in my car (again) or curse my way home on the 10. Whatever happens, I can say thank you, and I can carry it with me for the lesson it has been, make some space for it with the students who loved me so and told me so, because sometimes it all needs to be contained.


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