If I’m being completely honest, I feel nothing but an extremely intense and unrelenting sense of dread whenever I think about the start of school next week. This dread gives way to significant guilt, and then a serious anxiety about the path I have chosen and whether it is, in fact, the right one for me. These doubts – of whether I am meant to be a teacher- have consumed me this past week, in a time when I really ought to be mustering excitement and hope for the coming school year. This is not a good feeling.
Last year was my first as a teacher. Everyone I’ve ever met who is or has been an educator shares with me incredible horror stories about their first year. When I meet another teacher and tell them I have just completed my first year, they invariably give me a look of understanding pity and then try to reassure me that the second year WILL be better.
Despite all of these well-meaning colleagues, who pledge to me that the second year can’t possibly be worse than the first, I still find myself worrying that I simply am not capable of navigating another year with any modicum of success, while also maintaining a sense of balance in my personal life. Though there were small victories last year, overwhelmingly I felt tired, as if what I was doing was not making the impact I had set out to make. In truth, I was often disheartened, having spent hours on a single lesson, only to have a room full of adolescents react to it with boredom (best case) or outright disrespect (the worst.)
In truth, I’m scared to become just another jaded, cynical public school teacher. I see so many examples of this in my current job. There are those who refuse to assign papers in an English class because they don’t believe they should be forced to grade writing outside of school, or those who spend the majority of class time relating to students as peers without addressing the complexities, the wonders, of literature or language. So many of my colleagues approach their students with a preconceived judgment that they are lazy or incapable, that they need to be “kept in line” or given worksheets to keep them quiet. All of this makes my heart hurt, for I know it is not true. This is not the reason I became an educator.
So, in an effort to reconnect with the reason I DID choose to be a teacher, I revisited a paper I wrote in graduate school that attempted to answer a deceptively simple question: What is the purpose of schooling? (As a side note, I think our education system would benefit greatly from a serious reexamination of this question…are we really interested in producing students who can score proficiently on standardized tests, or should we be shooting for something more creative, something more applicable, more individualized?) Here’s a short excerpt from the introduction of the paper:
“The purpose of schooling should be to nurture a child’s inherent curiosity and to foster the development of empathy in each student. In this context, curiosity equates with a sense of wonder about the world and a hunger to learn about how it works. It is a non-judgmental state, characterized by an honest acceptance of one’s position as a perpetual learner. Curiosity, I believe, is innate in children, but often suffocates in school settings that view “learning” as the mere absorption of facts. If students are allowed the space to be genuinely curious about the world and to express and explore what it is that intrigues them, I believe they will develop a love of learning and a capacity to question and problem-solve that is essential to the world.
Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand another’s feelings and struggles. Practicing empathy is a personally held value that I believe should be essential to the work done in schools. If we are to prepare students to become responsible and caring citizens of the world, we must ask them to look beyond their own narrow worldview. We must teach our children to compassionately consider the experiences of those who may be different from them. In considering curiosity and empathy together, it seems the nurturance of one can connect with the development of the other.”
Perhaps if I can cleave to this purpose with ever more clarity and strength this year, this purpose that represents my core beliefs as an educator, I can begin to honor the gravely essential task I’ve been handed – inspiring my students to become more curious and empathic people.