To return to teaching is to return to war. And no, not simply the war on ignorance, as some might lamely suggest. Returning to teaching is all out war against time, space, and one’s personal endurance. It tests and requires one to will to commit to an endeavor which requires such a consistent, steady output of nearly all one’s energies that the profession most definitely could be considered life–(or having a life)–threatening in the service of a cause greater than one’s self. The classroom is a war zone, and the level of alertness one has to maintain, for 7 straight hours, drains one’s personal battery like a phone charged for two minutes too long. And then one does it again and again without hope for respite or a cease fire. War.
Your enemy will not let up. And you cannot give in. This war is a war for the soul of the country, our country. Our people are more divided than they ever have been by thoughts and feelings that they barely stop to consider, while people are less and less able to speak to each other in meaningful ways (even with unprecedented access to communication devices). No one is more aware of this fact than an educator. And no one is in a better situation, or more meaningful one, to make a stand. Grassroots is a term frequently thrown around; it means starting an initiative from the “bottom floor” or “ground” and letting it grow, organically, rather than attempting some “top-down” legislative action. Few people are closer to the bottom than teachers, and more capable of affecting healthy, structured growth, like a gardener, truly. What do we grow? We grow citizens, thinkers, and people with a shared culture, value-set, and capacity to question. We grow the next generation of fighters of literally every fight at every level. And we take our work, our mission, very seriously. Because we are the watchers at the gate. If we fail. America fails.
Failure. The chance of failure is always high, because there simply is no guarantee of success, no magical formula to mold and form young beings. There is plenty of empirical data, but it has limited applicability in a battle which takes on infinite forms. Also, teaching is an art, not a science, and no amount of data, theory, or methods will make one an effective, not to mention great teacher. No way. Like a general who has a feel for battle, an intuitive grasp of how to maneuver troops and win skirmishes, a teacher must feel the pulse of the classroom and take action to achieve the class’ goal. One has to innovate, adapt, and improvise on the fly. No book can teach one to do this with grace. No thing learned will build one’s strength under pressure. A teacher must be strong to survive in a classroom. A teacher must be titanic in strength to thrive. Every single teacher knows exactly what her personal mettle is, there simply is no hiding from it. The act of teaching reveals it.
Incredible teachers are master molders of the soul. They have ordered their own souls in such a masterful and unique way that every young mind they meet is permanently stamped by their unique mark. This person is utterly fascinating to others–impossible to describe, impossible to miss. A force of nature. And that is what they offer your children. And they give your children their all. Everything they do, they do to better your children and the world we live in. Let that sink in for a minute. Everything they do revolves around bettering the children and this world. Even when a teacher is relaxing at home, that is only because they are trying to bring it the next day. Rest is commodified. It exists only that the teacher will perform even better tomorrow.
What is scary is just how easy it is to fail as a teacher. All one has to do is leave one’s heart out of it for a day, maybe two. And it all slips away. One’s hold must be firm and constant. The consistency must be machine like, like an ever flowing river, constant and unstoppable–it just is and always will be so far as people perceive. But there is a will behind this feat, one that must choose to do this task everyday–give it one’s all, just to hope that one thing one ever says might stick in the soil and grow. Grassroots.
The reality of one’s singular nature as the giver of knowledge and former of souls is less aggrandizing than it is cause for panic. If one is tired or burnt out and does not feel like grading, then the grading does not get done. If one neglects to create an assignment, then the assignment is not created. If one does not plan out one of the 160 or so lessons one has to plan and then perform a year (as sole writer, director, and performer in one’s year long movie), then a lesson is not planned. There is no one there to do any of the work for a teacher, to cover for one where one is lacking. And therefore people can become highly critical of teachers–any flaw, however small, immediately comes back to the teacher. “That lesson did not resonate.” “This assignment could have been better.” “When will this essay be graded?” There is no institution, nor team, to fall behind. To teach is to know the bitter reality of the word personal responsibility.
Why then do people do it, given the extreme nature of the task, and the critical rather than utterly respectful attitude turned towards them? The profession offers few perks to those motivated by capitalistic desires. Especially in California, one is guaranteed to live paycheck to paycheck for the first several years–while one continues to pay to be a teacher by finishing a credential or then clearing it (which takes time and money away from a teacher). Those who desire a regular “work/life” balance, well they also should stay away from the profession, especially at the secondary education level where extensive planning and grading are a part of the job. There is nothing, in this world of glitzy advertising and marketing, which would attract some sane and rationally motivated person to the job. What, then, causes these noble souls to sacrifice their time, money, and life essence to help the children of other people grow and succeed? It is precisely the nobility of soul just casually mentioned which has this effect. Know me by my fruits says the teacher. Common are those who wish to help–rare are those who do.
A teacher who makes it through the inferno of her first years knows that she makes a tremendous difference, and that he or she is one of the few people capable of doing what she can do. A teacher lives in a state of knowledge of the value of her craft, while others remain largely ignorant of whether their contributions help society as a whole. That is the sole and primary benefit of teaching, against the tidal wave of negatives. Everyday, when a teacher goes to sleep, exhausted, possibly after a 15 hour day which has followed four other days, exactly the same, a teacher knows that when she dies, the best part of her soul will remain with all those she touched. And should that happen, a small battle in the eternal war is won, time and time again.