Human Parts
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Human Parts

LIVED THROUGH THIS

I’m a Teacher and I Feel Like I’m Failing My Students

I’m giving them everything I have, but it doesn’t feel like what they need most right now

Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso
Guernica by Picasso/Wikipedia

I hate being bad at this.

I hate being bad at this, but I’m doing it often enough that I have my own “losing my shit” checklist. It goes like this:

  • Snap at the little stuff, stuff I would normally laugh off or coach through.
  • Threaten to teach from textbooks or use grammar worksheets.
  • Go sit at my desk for a while.
  • Overcompensate with excitement and disproportional praise.
  • Step into the hallway. Passing colleague asks if I’m okay.
  • Give up on the little things.
  • Try to have a heart-to-heart with the class.
  • Heart-to-heart turns into a blamey lecture.
  • Sit on the back counter.
  • That one kid who gets it asks if I’m okay.
  • Yell/plead to the whole class even though it’s like three kids I’m talking to.
  • Step back into the hallway. Passing colleague just says “yup” because they’re losing their shit too.
  • Sit back at desk, put head in hands.

I’m trying so hard to be good, but bad just keeps sneaking up on me, pouncing when I’m too tired or distracted or overwhelmed to notice.

I’ve been going to bed early because I’m too tired to stay awake. I’ve been going to bed early because my brain can’t focus at night so I know I’ll need the hours in the morning. I’ve been going to bed early trying to race the sadness that hits when I’m still for too long.

It’s absurd to me that this year, after last year and after the year before it, we are doing anything other than healing. This should be a year of simple. This should be a year when every non-essential thing is stripped away and every arm we can manage is wrapped around our students to welcome them back into something that feels solid, feels stable, feels human.

All of us are tired. All of us are doing too much. When everyone is working beyond their capacity already, even a good idea can be a bad idea. What I need most is help doing the most important part of my job well, which this year means my days should be devoted to the students in my room.

I’ve really tried to rid myself of any hint of saviorism, but this year the kids need us — they need us to support their learning and to care about their bad days and to hear about what they’ve lost and to help them be around all their peers again and to have adults they aren’t related to who will listen to their ideas and opinions and to help them when they feel overwhelmed or unsafe or unable to sit still at exactly that moment. They need us to give them room for joy and connection and silliness and growth.

All of that takes work from us, takes the ability to see and hear 10 things happening at once and adapt what we’re doing for what each student needs. It takes energy and patience and empathy and intellect. It takes a teacher who is undistracted by every other thing, a teacher who has time in their day to recharge and time in their evenings to unplug. Every thing I have to think about, work on, or plan for that isn’t about being there for my students makes me that much less capable of doing so.

This is the story of why I’m a bad teacher this year. The reserves of patience and energy run out early on any given day, and it takes very little to get me in a pretty bad place. It’s easy to blame the students in that moment, because it was their playing, again, some dumb game on their Chromebooks instead of doing what they were supposed to, but it’s really not their fault.

Let me say that again and be clear: It’s not their fault.

They’re acting like kids do, are acting like kids act after a couple years of pandemic and distance learning and shaken confidence in just about every societal anchor they know of. It’s hard because we’re all so fragile, but it’s not on the kids.

Teaching has always been hard, too hard, has always been more than happy to accept more of my time, head, and heart than is healthy. And this year, teaching is just harder, is asking for more of me than ever, and this year I have less of me to give.

This week, I taught the same lesson to two different classes.

We’re practicing deconstruction and analysis, and students all get a paper copy of the painting Guernica by Picasso. Students literally deconstruct the painting with scissors, then glue them onto another blank sheet adding words, images, or diagrams in a way that creates their analysis of what they think the painting is about.

Everyone tried. Or, at least, they mostly did. There were a few kids who seemed stuck at the first step, scissors in one hand, staring at the painting in front of them. I had to cycle through and re-teach and re-direct, give some permission to get it wrong and try anyway, just start cutting. There were a few students that didn’t get started even after that because they were talking instead, but they got going eventually and ended with some good ideas. By the end of the hour, everyone had something, our class discussion involved a lot of different voices with many different opinions.

It was, man, it was exactly what I want my class to always feel like.

If it wasn’t for the kids…

It doesn’t always feel like that, not even close. The class at the end of the day was a wreck. Same lesson, different group of kids, different time of day, and ugh. The class ended with me sitting at my desk, head in my hands, the evidence of my failure as a teacher blocked from my eyes but still pounding against my ears.

I hate when teaching feels like that.

And all I can think about is how the biggest difference between the two classes wasn’t the way the kids were acting, but how I was. I had the energy and patience to be good at this for one group of kids, was far beyond that capacity with the other. Plenty still did some good work, but the kids who needed me most didn’t get enough of me.

I’m not scared of work or long hours. I’m not scared of new ideas or challenging classes or students who are struggling, but I hate being bad at this. I hate being bad at this, and I know I’m not alone.

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Thomas Rademacher

Thomas Rademacher

Author of ‘It Won’t Be Easy.’ and ‘Raising Ollie’ 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. @mrtomrad on everything. www.mrtomrad.com