For the past five years, I have been an English teacher at a rural New York high school.
Confession: I have no idea how to do my job.
There, I’ve admitted it.
Maybe. But I don’t think so.
If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t understand much about education. How am I supposed to educate all students? What does it mean to grade fairly? How do I manage a classroom full of students? And why is it that the copy machine breaks every time I’m in a hurry to make copies? The list of questions I have about teaching and learning is nearly endless.
So, I’m not kidding; I don’t know how to do my job.
And yet, not knowing is what keeps me coming back.
Don’t get me wrong, I have my bad days. Some mornings I have to drag myself up the front stairs of the school. These are dark days. Ironically, these are also the days when I know how to do my job better than anyone else. I know best how to organize a lesson that will grab students’ attention. I know that students who are failing my class absolutely deserve to be failing because they haven’t done a darn thing all semester. I know that school is without a doubt the most important thing in students’ lives. In fact, I know so much about education that I start to feel that there is nothing left for me to do but blame everyone else.
Luckily, I don’t feel like this all the time.
Some mornings I walk to work barely touching the ground, excited to see how my students will react to my latest harebrained idea. These are the days when I know that I’m going to make a mistake and that my new idea might fail. These are the days when I teach three totally different lessons because each time through I think of a better way of doing it. These are the days when I celebrate the small wins (Shaking a student’s hand when they use an apostrophe correctly!) and keep my focus on the positives (At least two people did their homework!) because I understand that so much of what my students go through is beyond my control–and too often, it is beyond theirs. I can’t begin to understand what life is like for my students. I can’t imagine not having enough money to buy food for extended periods of time. I can’t imagine not having a bed to sleep in, or a home to put a bed in. I can’t imagine how students who live these realities could possibly take school seriously. So, I try to make their experience in my class the best part of their day.
Some days I fail.
But some days I don’t.
The difference, often, depends on my ability to admit what I don’t know.