this is why.

After going through my inbox this morning, I checked, on a whim, the folder labeled "Junk E-mail." In the junk, right at the top of the pile, was an email from a former student. This young man was at our school for two years, but has since moved on to another location. He struggled to keep his grades up, and was starting to become a discipline issue. This kid was the perfect example of an iceberg: what you saw everyday was just the tip of a crappy hand dealt below the surface. He had more than enough reason to be pissed at the universe. For whatever reason, this young man and I had a great rapport. We connected.

Hey...I'm hoping this is your email address but I just want to let you I miss being in your class and that I was thinking about you. I wanted to let you know your still my favorite teacher and I am doing good. Hope this is your email and hope your doing good.

Of course I immediately replied with nothing short of a full-throttle inquisition. I was curious and wanted to know how he was faring. Word on the street is he had a baby. I sincerely hope he's "doing good."  

I forwarded the email to our school nurse, a woman who always looked after this young man and bent over backwards trying to help him out.  Her response was simply, This is why we do what we do. And she's right. 

I see my colleagues, good people with kind souls and work ethic like you wouldn't believe, breaking their backs over hours spent at their laptops. They work tirelessly to create amazing and intricate lesson plans that are water-tight and second to none. Because of this insurmountably high standard, at the start of this school year I was feeling a little, well, sub-par. Here's the deal: I will admit to anyone who asks that I don't work nearly as hard as my counterparts. That has been a conscious decision from day one. It has nothing to do with the fact that I currently have this unbelievably light load of students and classes. Even when I was working with five classes of 30+ students a day in California, I still made a conscious decision not to take work home with me. I have always vowed to keep balance in my life and never hid that from anyone. Since working at this school, going on three years now, I make it a point to let parents know, from the get-go, that I have a life outside of my job. When that bell rings at 3:20, I choose not to be a teacher anymore. I'm a wife, and a daughter, and a friend. Those other facets of my life are just as important, if not more important in the fabric of who I am and what constitutes my definition of living. I love my job, but it will never rule my life.

Likewise, I will never fault my colleagues for busting their humps and working long hours into the night. If that's how they choose to roll, then I support them. I just cannot commit to that. While teaching is about teaching, it's also about the connections. I love getting to know the people my students are. I want to know about their lives. It's fascinating and wonderful. I want them to know that I care about more than just what they've scored on a recent test or essay. Call me a naval-gazing fool. I'm alright with that. Sometimes I think I should have been a counselor. You know, I was once accused of being a "cheerleader," and not a "coach," while student-teaching in NYC. Apparently my teaching was more rah-rah and not enough of something else. My response was, so what? Why can't I be both? What if I am just a cheerleader in teacher's clothes? Would that be so bad? I have no desire to rest on my laurels and wax poetic all day long with my students. In fact, I'm pretty sure students, while in my class, are learning. Go ahead, ask 'em. I dare you. So long as my students continue to learn, then I'll be okay if my powerpoint slides aren't multi-colored with seventy-two pictures and intricate workings, and if my teacher web page is minimalist at best. That kind of stuff just doesn't interest me. I want my students to do. Susan Schlechter, my most favorite and memorable instructor at NYU once said something I've taken to heart and have never forgotten: The learning is in the doing.

Long after they have turned in their poems and short stories, long after I've assigned them a grade or helped them decide where to apply for college, my hope is that I was able to teach them something about who they are, and the kind of person they want to be. Yes, I want them to have some knowledge about the arc of a story, and what makes for a good line break. Yes, yes, yes. But, I also want to foster their humanity.

I may be wrong, but even if taken at face value, I think that email I received is good evidence I'm on the right track.


Chantel said...

First, I'm going to check my junk mail as soon as I'm done here. :) But secondly, if I could shout "Hell yeah!" I so would. I feel vehemently that a foundational issue our country has is dealing with boundaries. I swear with the invention of cell phones we lost the distinction between work and home. I battle with my students--college age--to actually get them to understand that we are not in their living room. And I cringe at the surreptitious creeping of our workplaces into our private time. I absolutely work in order to live...not live in order to work. Yes, you are very much on the right track.

ilene. said...

Thanks, Chantel. Sometimes I feel as if I'm in the minority when it comes to my philosophy/approach to working. But, I have to remind myself that this is what works best for me. Thanks for the validation. :)

Mia said...

I'm totally with you, Ilene (and you, Chantel). I wish I'd made that conscious choice earlier in my career rather than waiting until I became a mother to leave work at work. I found I became way more productive during the work day when I knew I wasn't planning on extending that day into late into the evening.

There are a few exceptions to this - in the beginning of the year and occasionally throughout the year I really like to be planned and can't get it all done at school. But I can live with a few evenings as opposed to every afternoon.

I totally agree though, this is why - and it's so reassuring to get a response from a former student. To know you were more than a stranger in the hallway.. Job well done!