For the past several years, I’ve used Teacher Appreciation Week to pay tribute to this wonderful community of teachers, to colleagues, to the teachers who have made those indelible marks on me, and even to my own mother. Yet, this year, there are three young people who have lived teacher appreciation, but may not really understand what it means. For you, my children, some insight.
Dear Evan, Lauren, and Zachary,
Many (many) years ago, there was this little girl who spent her summer afternoons creating neighborhood schools for all of the children on her block. She mimicked what school looked like to her: rows of desks, questions and answers, praise and encouragement from the teacher, stickers and stars on the top of “assignments.” She imagined what it would be like to free an idea in someone else’s mind. She was crestfallen when the game of tag pulled her “students” away all too soon in the afternoon. She would wake up early and try to think about how to make learning fun.
What I want you to know is that there are things in this world that you will choose, and there are things in this world that will choose you. That little girl was meant to be a teacher. Although it would take her years to recognize it, that meant you would, by default, know the life of a teacher.
Sometimes I wonder how you feel about this. Sure, there are parts of it you love: hanging out in mom’s classroom, feeling like little celebrities when my students see you at the grocery store. But there’s also the Saturday afternoons I’ve spent grading papers when you’re outside playing, or the dry cereal in to-go bags some mornings when I’ve already been up for hours trying to finish responding to that stack of papers.
There are times when I’m distracted during dinner because I can’t let go of that heartbreaking conversation I had with a student after school. Or when I’m racing around grabbing your Little League gear at the last minute because I just had to answer one more email from a teacher who lives in a place you haven’t heard of, but she really must need some advice if she’s reaching out to someone she’s only met through a video screen. In short, I know there are parts of mom’s teaching life you may not have chosen, but have certainly chosen you. And while it may be easy to roll your eyes at a dinner of leftovers, or a mom who forces you to listen to “this amazing student essay,” you need to know there’s more at stake here than cold pasta and dangling modifiers.
You need to know that teachers don’t see their classrooms as places where you go to make rules and assign homework; rather, they see them as extensions of their kitchen tables and living rooms. We strive to make these places safe and nurturing, welcoming and challenging.
You need to know that teachers worry about their students the way I worry about you; they celebrate the smallest of student accomplishments the way I celebrate yours. Teachers wake up at night thinking about their hard-to-reach students, the way I walk in to check on you when I hear a funny noise coming from your otherwise sleeping rooms.
You need to understand that teaching doesn’t open at 8:00 in the morning and close at 5:00 at night. Because when teaching chooses you, it grabs all of you and sometimes takes you through the ringer, leaving you drenched in exhaustion and sagging with the heaviness of never being able to do enough.
But it also creates an eternal optimist of you. It reminds you that every life matters, that in your constant vigilance for breakthrough you’ll encounter young people whose brilliance will restore your belief in the human spirit. It will make words like “hope” or “possibility” taste like sugar on your tongue, and words like “stupid” or “never” sting like unwelcome bile in your throat. I want you to know that the humility I’ve learned as a teacher has made me a better mom, and the selflessness I’ve learned as a mom has made me a better teacher. I want you to know that teachers could have chosen any profession, but instead they chose to teach you.
Perhaps one of you, or two or you, or all of you will find yourselves in classrooms one day. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have you as a colleague in this noble work. But, far more importantly, I want you to take the lessons of teachers with you: work to discover and be your best selves, see potential in others, extend kindness, and ask tough questions.
And in those moments when you wonder if your mom cares more about those other kids than she cares about you, rest assured that in caring about them, she’s loving you, too. That she’s desperately trying to teach you selflessness, resilience and the quiet rewards of a passion-driven life. We spend one week each year remembering to appreciate teachers, but I want you to spend a lifetime teaching appreciation.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.