Around the holidays, many visitors and holiday party-goers comment on how tired I look. I don’t think they mean this unkindly – it’s true, I do look exhausted this time of year (and many other times throughout the school year). Their well-intentioned comment prompts me to remind them that as a teacher, I work between fifty-five and sixty-five hours per week at a minimum. Inevitably, this leads to puzzled looks from well-meaning friends and family members, who believe they know what teachers do since they spent so many hours in a classroom as a student.
I explain that on my own time, not during the school day, I sponsor a successful musical theater program for 150 students, attend hours of IEP meetings, fill out reams of often pointless yet time-consuming federal, state, and local paperwork, continue my education and professional development to model lifelong learning for my students, coach my peers in the rigorous National Board Certification process, and advocate to policymakers for my profession and my students.
Sometimes, a particularly intrepid person will wonder how the job can be so demanding after 18 years of experience. Shouldn’t it get easier? Then I have to explain that the 36 people in my classroom every day are different than the students I had last year. The fourth graders eagerly anticipating fifth grade next year won’t be the same as this year’s crew.
So I do what I do best…I teach. I teach them about what a teacher really does.
I teach 5th grade. Anyone who has 10 and 11-year-olds in their life knows they are at an interesting stage in their lives – stepping through the tiny, brief doorway between childhood and puberty. In the context of academic life they share general characteristics: sloppy handwriting, they need a great deal of physical activity, they’re extremely awkward both physically and emotionally, they can be sensitive, they love arguing and debating, and they enjoy testing limits and rules.
However, for every way a student is the same, there is a way each is different. The sheer physical, emotional, social, cultural, and cognitive diversity in a class of 36 students is staggering. But this knowledge of our students is the key to effective teaching. Each child has a story, which a teacher has to read.
I teach each unique individual – all 36 of them. I teach my students rigorous standards to promote critical thinking and problem-solving. I establish connections through disciplines. I have a deep knowledge of content areas, so deep, in fact, that I can recognize potential misconceptions and how to address them to ensure mastery.
I teach them how to speak and how to listen. I ensure equitable participation and teach diverse pre-teens to engage with each other. And believe me, they do not always want to cooperate.
I assess their prior knowledge, integrate their interests to engage them, and integrate authentic learning experiences into my teaching. I spend my waking hours crafting lessons that make learning relevant, meaningful and captivating to those 36 individuals.
I assess their work and provide timely and specific feedback. I set goals with them and create action plans to help them achieve them. I communicate with their families as we grow these children into successful, responsible citizens.
I am their champion, nurse, advocate, therapist, nutritionist, cheerleader, parent, and yes, their teacher. I will make them question, work, change, and grow. I am a good listener with a caring hug and a snack when needed.
I manage the physical and mental space of 36 little people day in and day out. That’s what I do – I teach. And I am typical of so many teachers that I know in my school, across the state of Arizona and across the country.
Often, the friend or family members smile, nod, and walk away, probably (and wisely) to find someone less likely to offer a passionate lecture about their profession at a holiday party. But that’s cool, I’m going to find a quiet corner to take a nap…