Teachers, I’ve had you on my mind this week.
Walking through the school supply aisle gets me all googly-eyed for pretty folders and pens, and crayons. Oh, the smell of crayons. Which gets me thinking of all the heroes I know. The teachers who work and give and love and fight for our kids. My thinking turns to praying and my praying leads to remembering.
This time last year, Sister was beginning a new gig as a longterm sub in an Atlanta school. She’s a sharp one, and a quick learner, which made her perfect for jumping head first into an elementary school culture. But I still got a few daily calls from her with stories that ended with, “Is this FOR REAL?” From the wisdom of my ten years teaching school, I would answer her . . .
Yes. This is for real.
Teachers know, more than anyone else knows, that some of the things you do and see will make you ask, a few times a day, Is this junk for real?
My first year of teaching was in a North Carolina middle school. I loved those 8th graders. Two things one must posses to survive in middle school: laughter and appreciation for a good eye roll. Never underestimate how often these two can happen with 8th graders. I learned to rate the rolling of the eyes like an olympic judge, never really giving a 10.0 until the day LaTravia and I had a “come to Jesus” moment.
Looking back, I might have done things differently now. But in the moment, I was pretty proud of my first year teacher self. LaTravia had the kind of wit and sass that I actually appreciate. But one day, it was altogether too much. Teachers, you’ve been there. Her seat in 3rd period had been moved a thousand times, but the girl just wouldn’t quit. Finally, I asked her to move to a front row, corner seat. She looked me in the eye, decided that seat didn’t meet her style, and said “No thanks.” Any other day, I would have invited her to step on down to the principal’s office for that response. But that day, I firmly insisted, “Move to your new desk.” She looked at me again, looked at her peers, and said “That desk don’t have my name on it.” With all the cool I had left in me, I decided once and for all that this girl and I were not going head to head every single day. I grabbed the biggest red marker I could find, walked to the desk without a word, and wrote in gigantic letters on the desk: LATRAVIA. The whole class gasped, she stared at me like I had lost my mind. I calmly said, “Now it does. Have a seat.” She sat down without a word. (Never mind that it was a dry erase marker on an old desktop – the thing wiped off easily enough. But she didn’t need to know that.) She and I came to enjoy 3rd period together and had more laughs than eye rolls.
Laughter is something I needed like a drug when I taught in Texas. I went from my suburban middle school kiddos in North Carolina to teaching Reading in Dallas, Texas. Reading was the class students were placed in for one of these reasons: 1. You struggled with reading skills. Fair enough. 2. You struggled to speak English (40 different nationalities represented in this school. All righty, we can do this.) 3. You were re-entering the school from a stint in the alternative school, for various illegal or dangerous infractions (Awesome. Welcome to reading class, kindly refrain from references to knifing someone, dear) 4. You had been kicked out of every other elective class for bad behavior.
You can imagine the personalities I had mixed together in that big pot of Reading soup. You may also imagine my appreciation of the school police officer who was “on call” for my classroom, and visited from time to time to “encourage” the students in their reading endeavors. My favorite memory from those years is not even the “Book Feast” where students could bring in a food item inspired by a novel they read. (One young lad brought in a single serving size microwave macaroni and cheese to share – still frozen – because “It cooks fast, and I read dat book fast.”) My favorite memory is the time my 4th period class of mainly Alternative school boys read and loved “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” No matter that it’s a novel typically read by younger kids; these 9th grade struggling readers loved the heck out of that book. It was our version for sure, with student-designed costumes and a script written by them, in their own Dallas vernacular. The Herdman’s never looked so cool. That play was some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom.
Until Special Ed.
Teachers know, you never say never when it comes to the classroom. In a million years, I never dreamed that I’d teach students with Mild Intellectual Disabilities. Or that I would learn firsthand what IEP, CP, GAA, ODD, FAPE, and a thousand other Special Ed acronymns mean as we lived them each day. But, sure enough, I went from teaching English to a self-contained classroom. It took about an hour to fall in love with my first caseload of students. Every single day had at least one hilarious story and one frustrating story. Instead of, “How was your day?” my husband learned to ask, “Did you lose anybody today?” Because sometimes, we did.
I wish I was kidding.
In a ginormous high school setting, with our intent of keeping “our kids” in as much of the high school general education setting as possible, we SPED teachers spent our days running all over the school. Walking them to chorus class, to the cafeteria, to electives, toileting, and more, we were everywhere. Self-contained – ha! I had one student who used a wheelchair, let’s call him Smiley. Mr. Smiley was all personality and charm, so naturally everyone loved to talk to him and give him high fives. So fun. Until he decided to be anywhere BUT where he was supposed to be. Did we lose him? Yes. Did it happen not once but a few times? Yes. Did we always find him? Yes. It’s all good, people. What can I say, teenage boys love to hang out in the gym with the pretty girls. You live, you learn. Both Mr. Smiley and myself.
That was for real.
As are the thousand of other teacher moments. The moments when you look at your hands covered in glue and markers and you wonder if there actually is a nail polish that would ever hold up for a teacher.
The moments when you realize your ten minutes to scarf down lunch is gone because you stopped to listen to what is behind their middle school tears.
The moments when you look around at a room full of kids who are actually enjoying an activity that you weren’t sure you could pull off. But it just worked, and it was magic.
The moments when you realize that this kid has something special, and you get a front row seat to see that something take flight.
The moments when your feet ache from hours of walking the classroom, walking them to the next thing, and walking to (blasted!) car duty. But you still walk your happy self down to the counselor’s office because someone needs to know and you will not let this kid fall through the cracks again.
The moments matter, teachers.
Thank you for every moment you offer. This is not the silly “Thanks for all you do” line (We all know that’s a line tacked on to emails from people and it really means “Thanks for doing this ridiculous thing you don’t want to do. Do it anyway.” For real.)
Thank you for these moments. Thank you for doing what not everyone can do. Thank you for making the magic happen for your kids. Those of us who are not there in the classroom with you may never see the smiles on their faces or the tireless efforts you put into those activities. But please know: we are cheering you on.
Not everyone, for sure. There are some who want to point out every little thing you should do differently. But so many of us are standing here in your cheering section. You’ve got this, we say. Either because we’ve been there or because we believe in the gifts you offer the world. Or because we are sending our kids your way. Either way, teachers, we are cheering you on. We are hoping for you, defending you, and – because it’s what I do – praying for you.
So, here goes.
A Prayer for Teachers
May the new pocket charts, smart boards, and colorful folders,
May the desk decor and colored pens brighten every corner.
It’s the little things, O Lord.
May the students be awake and energetic to the exact degree
that the teacher is awake and energetic.
No more, no less, O Lord.
May the emails be short,
May the meetings be short,
May the phone calls just be . . . short.
Help us out, O Lord.
May the coffee do the trick and the technology just work how it’s supposed to.
May the kinks get worked out early in the morning, and – help us all – may the substitute be fabulous.
We’re not kidding, O Lord.
May they listen.
May they pay attention.
May they lean in with so much interest that they don’t care that this really is Science. English. Art History. Music.
Let them lean in and learn, O Lord.
May the teachers be brave.
May they dare to challenge, risk more, and not be afraid of those who want what they want when they want it.
Give them some back up, O Lord.
May peace enter in.
Peace among teachers, peace among classmates, peace among parents, peace at the lunchroom tables.
It could happen, O Lord.
May cynicism be trumped by lovely surprises.
May principals and teachers make room for delight.
It is the little things, isn’t it, O Lord?
May they be safe.
May they be protected from harm and hate and prejudice and danger.
We worry. We fear.
Hold them safe, O Lord.
May our teachers truly see.
May they see each story, each potential,
each struggle seated in each and every desk.
May they see the ways they can be hope for these very kids
in these very moments.
Be Thou our Vision, O Lord.
May they remember.
May teachers remember what the essential questions really are, and what called them to this work.
May administrators remember what matters.
May we all remember what it is like to be a kid in a classroom.
May this memory shape the very lesson plans.
And the moments.
For real, O Lord.
Teachers, what would you add to this prayer?
Also on Erin Robinson Hall
Deep waters, flames, and fears have come before. They will probably come again. But the narrative I want my child to have, and the narrative I hope to voice continually for myself and for my family is this: Fear doesn’t win. We are strong. And just in case we’re not brave enough, we will be brave for each other.