As a teacher, my first challenge is spending enough time with my students. Wanting to be with my kids and in my school more than I already am doesn’t make me an exception-I would say it’s the rule with good teachers-which most of us are in one way or another. There is just so much to do when you are charged with moving a wide spectrum of developing personality types, in an orderly fashion, through rigorous curriculum demands. It isn’t just the primary goal of content that drives each day’s schedule; it’s consideration of the needs of individual students. Where are they at academically with this particular subject? How can I work this lesson for them specifically? What other students should I have them work with, and which ones should I absolutely NOT have them work with? What goal can I hope to reach with them today-or down the road (this week, this month, this marking period…this year)? Put with this the actual reflection, grading, feedback and adjustment of instruction that needs to happen and it’s easy to see how the end of the day, as precious as it can feel when it comes, can come too soon.
The second challenge is the differentiation of instruction that needs to occur to target individual learners. The term “differentiation” has become more popular in teaching practice over the past decade or so because students are so different from each other, and different in general than they were “not that long ago”. When I was in third grade, my class had thirty (plus or minus) kids in it. As many as that seems compared to today’s standards, it was an orderly crew. In part, that was because my teacher was a seasoned, experienced teacher-the kind that the recent “reform” movement often targets because of the pay and pension hard work and time have earned them. It was also orderly in her room because students were different then. In a room of thirty or so, you might expect 3 or 4 kids that could be a challenge behaviorally. Go to a real public school today, especially in an area where families struggle with financial and social challenges the eroding economy has brought and ask a teacher if they think thirty is a good class size. I’m pretty sure of what they would say. Common sense, research, and a teacher would all tell you “no”. Kids are different today.
The third challenge is staying civil and positive despite the criticisms cast in the direction of my profession. Teachers battle every day to help students learn and grow into a culture and society that over time has held promise (“The American Dream”) for fewer of them. The growing gap in wealth between those who have more than they would ever need, and those who don’t have enough, has accompanied a correlative gap in academic achievement. This erosion of economic stability in this country has brought with it instability in the families of students. How can a teacher know for sure that a parent will be available to see notes, check homework, or come in for a conference? How can a teacher make sure that students get plenty of sleep, a decent meal and a home that is safe and nurturing? A teacher can’t stop in to turn off the TV or video game. There are so many things that impact a young mind before it gets to school and once it leaves its hallways and classrooms, but the current reform movement is in denial of those inconvenient truths. The suggestion is that the profession is just missing the miracle worker, a “superman”. Superman is already there, performing miracles. Kids are being saved and inspired every day despite destructive policies teachers and families have no control over. Critics forget or overlook that because it doesn’t support their agenda, and it places responsibility on those unwilling to accept it.
The fourth and maybe greatest challenge for me is to save enough of myself to be the husband and father I want to be at the end of the day. Teaching isn’t just a skill, talent and aptitude (and it is those things and more), it’s a labor of love. I have, at times, fallen short of being that leader and that model for my own family by saving some of that love for them. Some days can sap your well of patience and it is a feat to keep the unflappable teacher face on all day, and then “keep it together” when I finally get home. But I’m not “superman”, superman is make-believe. I’m a teacher, I’m real and there are a whole bunch of us out there saving kids every day.