I Love Teaching for all the Reasons that Can’t Be Counted.

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Sometimes, when I think about what I want to do after teaching, I wonder if someone would pay me to just sit quietly in a silent room. That seems nice. The closest I get is during lunch when my room is sometimes empty. I consume food and twitter and silence.

Last week, a student from a few years ago popped his head into my room. He does so just about every day, sometimes a few times a day, and then sometimes not at all for a few weeks on end. He is usually avoiding class, or sometimes is just a few hours late to school and still in no big rush to make it to where he has to go. He often needs to be sent on his way, but when he popped his head last week, I almost did the instant pointing and yelling thing. I needed lunch. I needed quiet. But I didn’t yell, and I’m not sure why.

(Except also my wife had woken early that morning to tell me she had had a very clear dream that warned of a school shooting. She didn’t think it was my school, but was, in general, very worried about things.

I don’t believe in dreams or ghosts or psychic anything, but also if my wife, her mom, or my mom ever called me and told me not to get on a specific flight because they had a feeling about it, you wouldn’t be able to pay me enough to board the thing.)

Anyway, I didn’t yell, because maybe something about the dream or the warning had me in a slightly different head space, and so I asked how he was doing, and he said, “really not good,” and we talked about his real problems, which aren’t mind to tell, and also his girl problems, which are still not mine. I couldn’t help him with either, really, but was very glad to be there to listen, to offer an awkward side hug before he left.

It may be that one of the things that most exhausts me about so many of the broader conversations about teaching is that they do not have space or language or interest in interactions like this. For all that we talk about instruction, maybe, we skip a lot of conversations about teaching. Instead we shout about the same stuff we’ve been shouting about since forever. Education is probably why I dream about empty, quiet rooms. Teaching is a whole other story. Teaching is exactly why I stick around.

The new year started not so long ago (even though January felt roughly 12 Julys long and it already ended at least 3 Augusts ago), but so far, Teaching has continued to bring me the mix of weird and wonderful and powerful and terrible that I’ve truly come to love.

Students have started writing passionate statements of belief about freeing Tibet and Sexual Harrassment and being Pro-Life and being pro gun-control and why Black History Month needs to be about more than all the bad things that have happened to Black people.

One group of students started counting how often I said the word “right” while teaching. I hit 24 during one class hour, and now am really super self-conscious about it.

Last week, we talked about how the phrase “the Invention of Whiteness” references a different idea than individual white people.

A student from last year lost her mom to cancer. We spent a good portion of our team meeting talking about the student and her mom. I did lunch duty on the day of the funeral so some of our office staff could attend.

During lunch duty, I learned that at one particular table, there is a student who always gets a big pile of sliced pickles. When anyone at the table yells “pick me, Maddy!” she throws them a pickle. Conversation is not interrupted. I got pickled.

On one day, I gave directions to a fairly straight-forward writing assignment which also had written directions and multiple examples, and was afterwards asked fewer than ten times what we were doing, or how to do it, or if there were any examples.

On another day there was this one thing that happened. I can’t even tell the story, but it was amazing and horrifying, as if all of puberty was condensed and concentrated into a very specific 10 seconds. I can’t tell you, though I want to, but if I did you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway. Also, this thing, the one I’m not going to tell you about, doesn’t come close to cracking the top ten weirdest things that have happened in my 14 years teaching. It was a doozy though, but I’m still not going to tell you.

I’m so glad this profession is so messy and human and ridiculous, so glad that some days shift wildly depending on where my students are at or what my wife dreamt about or what happened in the world or during their last hour. I’m so glad so much of what I take away, so much of what students take away from class every day is not stuff that can be easily counted or measured or repackaged.

On the first day of school this year, a student came up to me and handed me a small drawing of a moustache. I’ve gotten one every day since, and keep putting them up near my desk (really, the wildest part about the whole thing at this point is that it’s February and I still have Scotch tape.). It’s never been explained, which is part of what gives me such joy.

The moustache wall is now this thing that happens in my class, and like thousands of things before it that happen over days, weeks, months, or years of teaching, there was no predicting that it would happen, no reason to try to explain why, or what impact it may have, except that I know it’s a sign that something right is happening, that I’m where I’m supposed to be doing what I’m supposed to do, after many hard years feeling otherwise.

So often when teaching, at the end of a day or in those quiet lunch moments, I find myself staring into space. I take deep breaths. Though I can sometimes struggle to be fully present in any given moment, I find the reverse is true when teaching is going well, when I’ve let myself lean into it. I get so wrapped up in each moment of each day, I can forget to take a step back, reflect on what I’ve learned, on what I know, now that I’ve taught for this long.

I know I’m a teacher. I know the parts of my work that are necessary, and those that are important, and those that are far from. I know my work is the students in my classroom and those on the way and those that have moved on. On many, many days, everything else is just noise.

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

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