Yesterday was the last day of school. There was a pizza party, yearbook signing, and lots of adorably dramatic pre-teen tears mingling with shouts of joy. In theory, I should have woken up today with a feeling of freedom and joy at the thought of the summer ahead. But I didn’t. My heart is heavy.
Here’s what people who aren’t teachers don’t understand…your students don’t stop being your students when the bell rings on that last bittersweet day of the school year. You cannot spend more than 1,000 hours with people that you’re trying to understand, to reach, to teach, without caring a lot about them. That’s the emotional toll of teaching, especially at the end of the year when we say our goodbyes. I’m going to worry about some of my students being hungry without school breakfast and lunch over the summer. I’ll wonder if they’re selecting good-fit books (or any books at all). I’ll worry if one will continue to struggle with homelessness, quite a few with anxiety and depression and if others will be taken out of the foster care system and returned to their families.
The emotional toll of teaching is very real. A good teacher knows that learning occurs only when a relationship is built between the student and teacher. In order to teach well, teachers have to draw students’ attention, they have to motivate each individual student, and they have to ensure orderly classroom management with increasingly large class sizes. We have to practice large amounts of patience while inspiring achievement and help students knock down barriers to their success. These require that teachers show certain emotions while suppressing others. Studies have shown that the emotional toll on teachers leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout. It is also a crucial area to study as we begin to understand the many factors that cause our teacher retention crisis.
I’ve been a parent, friend, counselor, cook, social worker, cheerleader, and even nurse to my 65 students this year. With changing family and societal dynamics, being all things for students is increasingly important while becoming increasingly challenging. I’ve cried with them over dead hamsters and separating parents, sang songs and danced with them, and cheered for them at band concerts and talent shows. I’ve let them into my life, and I’ve been included in theirs.
It may be hard for someone outside the profession to understand, but there is no such thing as goodbye between a teacher and a student. Teachers never leave work at home and never leave students out of their minds or hearts.
Some of this year’s students will come back for a hug and a visit every day until they go to high school. Some will come back for yearly visits and send occasional emails. Some will vanish. But I’ll never forget any of them.
Parker Palmer, in his inspirational book The Courage to Teach, explains it best, “Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able” (1998, pp.11).
Don’t get me wrong – I am in desperate need of a break from the emotional toll, not to mention the physical and cognitive demands of our job. But my heart aches as I wonder about this kid and that one, and wish that they all return for hugs and high-fives after the break. Until then, I’ll be thinking of them.