My bookcase also broke this year.
So did a lamp and a picture frame. Though we are still months from the end of the year, by my very rough estimates from a largely imperfect student-run checkout system, over fifty books are missing from my classroom library. Nevermind the ones that have come back with cracked spines, dog-eared pages, water-damaged covers. Even though a handful of books were donated or bought used or even collected as castoffs from other teachers’ libraries, this stings. It stings my wallet. And it stings my heart.
I spend at least $50 a month building my classroom library. It is my choice but only superficially. Not only do schools not have budgets for much of anything anymore, leading professional development gurus like Kelly Gallagher actually recommend that teachers set aside money every month to build their own libraries.
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I also buy school supplies, classroom decorations, reading corner furniture, prizes, snacks, and treats (after filling out copious permission slips to do so). In short, I spend a small fortune each year just to do my job. If you are an educator, this is nothing new or surprising. It is expected. Still, it stings.
The financial sting isn’t where it hurts the most, though. Things break, things go missing, things are purposefully damaged by students who either were never taught better or who were taught better and do it anyway.
You create a review game and set up an incentive to have students practice vocabulary, only to discover that more students learned how to game the system, cheating you out of Jolly Ranchers and themselves out of learning, than those who played the game in earnest.
You are told that standardized testing should come with mints, there are no good candy flavors left, the books in the class library are borning, IKEA pillows are cheap, and no teacher deserves a Christmas present because they’re all overpaid anyway.
That is a bad day.
They happen a lot.
Then, there are the really bad days. The times where you are pulled in so many directions by so many different committees and standards and frameworks and assessments it seems that you’ll physically snap. No matter how many extra hours you put in, all of that time and effort is rarely met with thanks; instead, more work is doled out by administration and questions of your competence are asked by families. Supports are put in place, counseling sessions are offered, parent contact is made, every extra intervention that currently exists and some that you dreamt up yourself are tried out, and still, the students struggle. Days when you realize just how imperfect that system is are really bad days.
Nothing compares to the worst of days, though. Backpacks stay in lockers, no hats or hoods are allowed, Halloween costumes are distant memories, drills take place in darked classrooms with a clump of thirty students cowering in the farthest corner as the police officer jingles the lock to see if anyone will yelp, only to realize that no amount of practicing can make up for the day when the lockdown isn’t a drill and there really is a weapon in school. If it’s not violence, it’s bullying, it’s illness, it’s divorce, it’s drugs, it’s suicide. Those are the worst of days.
We teach through it all.
But what I want to remind you of, dear teacher with the broken bookshelf and the battered heart, are all of the other days. Because those days, those are the days that matter, those are the days that make this job worth doing, worth investing in, worth giving your heart to.
Remember that moment when the student who struggled perpetually looked you square in the eye with a glimmer of understanding. Remember that moment when a student said something so funny, so witty, so true about the world, about the president, or about some other topic far beyond their years that you had to turn your head and bite the inside of your cheek so as not to laugh out loud and blow your cover. Remember when a student who is the first to grab or take or never return finally utters a simple please or thank you.
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Remember that moment when a boy with autism handed you a Christmas card with one messy line scrawled across the inside and watched you read every single word before dashing away. Remember that moment when you heard something so ugly you couldn’t believe it actually came out of someone’s mouth, yet before you could intervene, a group of students swooped in to stop the ugliness and pick up the broken pieces of their peer’s heart. Those are the moments that matter.
You will foster a love of reading. You will grow an appreciation for numeracy. You will teach current events, scientific principles, technology skills, fitness concepts, common sense. You will shape lives. You may never be thanked, you may never have a student walk back into your classroom after a decade or two or three, you may never truly understand the worth of those countless hours, but you will make a difference.
It is true. We are living in the midst of a mental health and an opioid crisis. Students are homeless, students are hungry. Families are less present, no matter the income level. This is the era of busy, where every minute of every day is scheduled to the max for students, and homework seems to be an afterthought if it hasn’t been banned outright. There are budget shortages and teacher shortages. These are tough times to teach. Maybe the very toughest.
That is why, teacher whose broken bookcase post went viral, we need you. We need teachers like you. Teachers who understand that after years of studying the science of teaching, it is still very much the art of teaching that matters. Teachers who pour every ounce of themselves into their work even on days, weeks, months, or years when the thanks never come.
We all matter.
Of course, I understand if you must go. Everyone has a breaking point and goodness knows that our educational system is flawed. Every educational system is flawed. We are teaching humans, not robots. We are building futures, not machines. It is also true that not everyone can teach, should teach, or wants to teach.
But if you are a teacher who is having a bad day, a really bad day, or the worst day, I challenge you to remember all the other days. To remember all the lives that you touch even if you never fully witness the fruits of your labor. To remember that teachers all over the country and all around the world have your back. Bookcases will break from time to time. So will your heart. But I promise you, the bad days get better and there is no greater career.
Thank you for being a teacher, broken bookcase and all.
So Tell Me…How do you keep going on your bad days at work?
PS – Vicki from Make Smarter Decisions and I started a Facebook page and group called Teachers Money Talk as a space for educators to come and talk about the ways in which money intersects with our lives. Join us!