Wreck of the Teacher Train

My freshman geography teacher’s mother was dying. Word got around. But even if we hadn’t heard from the grapevine, it was easy enough to tell something was wrong. Classroom behavior was disastrous. We watched video after video. She cried at least once a week. I hated the class.

Now that I’m a teacher, I see the experience differently. I know how incredibly difficult it can be sometimes to set one’s personal life aside and crank out effective teaching. Not many professions require the mix of performance and caring that teaching does. I smile when students are shocked to discover I have a FaceBook page, use Skype, or shop at Target because I remember thinking exactly the same kinds of things about my teachers when I was their age. Seeing teachers as “real people” is a stretch for many students.

In the past 14 months, three of my grandparents have died, I’ve had surgery, and my parents have filed for divorce. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve felt like a bit of a wreck. I do think I’ve done a good job “keeping myself together,” at least in front of my students and colleagues.

The picture is titled The Wreck of the Teacher Train (Library of Congress photo). The New York Times published an article about the 1911 wreck.

In the midst of the past year, I’ve been grateful for my students, my virtual and school colleagues, and my friends. When I returned to school today, a boat made of popsicle sticks and colored with markers was on my desk. It bore a note reading, “We hope you feel better!” and was signed by three of my students. In the past week, several teachers have tweeted encouragement and condolences. Karen made me laugh when she suggested getting to school with your clothes on some days is worthy of celebration. Steve passed on a reminder of this passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.  Boyd suggested Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The 6th grade social studies teacher at school has been a patient and encouraging presence. Nothing replaces old friends, and it was wonderful to have dinner with friends from Duke Divinity School at the Q-Shack tonight.

This year has also made me more mindful of the outside lives of my students. With what private aches did he walk into my classroom this morning? Why is she so desperate for the attention of the class? Who is he worried about when he stares off into space?

The teaching life is not an easy one, especially when life intrudes into the classroom, but fellow travelers lighten the load.

2 thoughts on “Wreck of the Teacher Train

  1. I’ve already sympathized with you some on twitter, but I’ll go a little further than 140 here. I, too, found a mixed bag with my return to school. At times, it was so nice to get out of the house, return to a routine, immerse myself in the work, and forget about all the problems lurking once that final bell rang. At other times, it was horrible having to be “on” constantly at school when I felt like doing nothing more than turning out the lights to my room, shutting the door, laying my head on my desk, and going into a cocoon.

    I also echo your experiences with empathy. This has hit me two-fold since having kids of my own. When I’m dealing with that difficult kid who has no interest in learning and annoys me, I constantly have to think to myself, “What if this were my son?” It’s easy to lose sight of that. Kids can seem so willfully disruptive and… lazy… that I can forget that these are all too often coping mechanisms to deal with their academic failures or home traumas.

    Good luck finishing out your year. I’ve really enjoyed reading your tweets and blog posts. I’ve managed to find some fire and excitement for teaching at a time in the year where I’m usually completely burnt out. Keep on keeping on!

  2. Meredith,

    I am so impressed with your focus, creativity, and passion for teaching. I always enjoy your tweets and posts on the ECNing. It surprises me that you have endured such a difficult year because you have continued to be so strong and insightful, I never would have thought.

    Thank you for being an inspiration and know that you are in my prayers.

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