Part of the problem was that I went straight from high school to college to graduate school right back to elementary school again as a teacher; school has been my schema since I was a baby. There’s also the fact that I never really literally leave work at work, because all teachers have more to do than can be done in the hours they’re paid to do it in, so stuff just gets done at home.
There was more to my inability to leave work at work, though. I simply didn’t let go of the thoughts of my students when I locked up my classroom at the end of the day. They didn’t go away when I closed my computer, sat down to dinner with a friend, or went to the grocery store. … In the busy moments and the still moments, my students from that first class were with me wherever I was.
Their needs were so great and my hopes for them were so high. Looking back, I think that discrepancy was what the initial heart-wrangling was all about. It felt like a huge responsibility—one I wanted, one I felt prepared and excited for, but a scary and important one nonetheless.
I teach kids how to eat, how to walk, how to read, how to speak. I believe in their ability to do those things and in their right to access the learning they need to be able to do so. So I walked around with their present levels of performances shuffling around inside of me and with their goals hanging over me.
I would talk about my kids constantly. Every funny story, new word, successful moment, and messy disaster, I wanted to share it with my family and friends. My friends (liberal arts majors in their early twenties) were uncomfortably amused and more often generally horrified by my stories. They agreed that one of my students calling me “mean lady” was fairly hilarious but got quiet when they discovered the bruises on my arms were from where a child had bitten me.
To tell each story, I felt like I had to fill my audience in on all the details about the kids so they would therefore understand why it was funny or cool or sad — and sometimes it was too much. My friends were very interested in my job, but they would get stuck amid all the acronyms and passionate blustering. . . . and start to quietly zone out.
There was no dramatic realization that caused me to suddenly stop holding onto my students too tightly in my thoughts. It’s only looking back now that I realize how differently I carry them with me today. I think it takes experiencing the success-setback-success pattern over a whole school year for us teachers to start feeling a decline in the urgency of our students’ needs and our expectations.
For example, it took my student Saria more than two years to say her own name correctly, which she can now do in a full three-word sentence. After two years of squeezing words out of her like the last toothpaste left in the tube, this child now talks incessantly. When she leaves at the end of the day, I’m not thinking as much about the fact that she still can’t count to five. Instead, I’m enjoying the peace and quiet.