The quiet of good work. I’ve realized, I will never get a big award. I will never stand on a podium. My face will never be on the front of a magazine. No coin will be minted with my visage. Finally, no record book will list my name. As I slide toward 60, it’s clear: A lifetime in education, while good work if you are able, is quiet.
It’s 5 a.m. with a coffee cup in your hand and fear and busyness in your stomach. You head out into the cool winter day, sun rising, educational ideas a swirl, students in mind.
You remember the student you lost — the one who was so sharp, likely the smartest one ever, killed on a country road while training. The one who ran away from you; being a good teacher you chased him, in heels across a baseball field, to bring him back to elementary school. The fear is there because, deep down, you remember the year that did not work.
You were sick, and your class was in a way, too. The low point making medically related phone calls about intimate body parts in the school office. No cell phones, and only that phone to use. No, the lowest point, having to ask permission to leave school grounds at lunch to walk around outside to relieve the relentless anxiety and discouragement of being unable to get a class to bond and learn. No, there was a lower point, the day a fellow teacher stole the one, new thing you had in your room — chairs — because she was older, had been there longer, and was way, way taller. I also remember teachers whispering to me in the hall, “It’s not you. Keep going, we know you can do it.” If I had not had 10 years of experience before that year, I never would have taught again.
The fear of failing children. Of losing my job, of not catching all the problems that a teacher needs to catch. The year four children came to my classroom door unable to read, but it was third grade — how did they get there unable to read? The child who didn’t have a house — but when I read the child’s essay in cursive I was stunned by the lyric words and sentences. When I told the parent that the girl was a good writer, she thought I was talking about her cursive, not the words. A week later she was gone.
The threats. One delivered by an administrator: If every child in my class did not have a certain percent on a unit test, maybe I just shouldn’t teach there. I was unclear how every student, so different, could possibly get the same test score.
Teaching is quiet. The moments that glimmer are often only seen by you, the teacher. The inside class joke when everyone laughs together at the same thing. The day you hear a student use your very own words, in a good way. The minute, when you look up, and the flow of learning is like a flood, all heads turning to see the picture in the book, all crayons coloring, and all brushes brushing on birch bark on the easel. The pregnant silence of a class of third-graders reading, silently, each in their own book world. The student sharing with you, first: My parents are getting divorced. The sparklingly creative comment by a child that makes you draw in a breath at the originality of it.
A class bonds, usually for just a year, which means as kids get older, in about February they realize they will soon move on. Teacher wisdom begins to fall on closed ears as they prepare for the next year. Weary of your advice and limits, restless and ready for another set of adults to advise them. The window when you can reach them is small and short. After eight hours a day with a group of humans you know them very well, you see them with their peers through a lens that no one else in their life does. It’s a fear-inducing level of responsibility.
It’s a quiet kind of good work. If you do it well, it actually becomes loud work. Loud in the future. Loud with authors, lawyers, mothers, doctors, fixers of all kinds, scientists, technology experts, singers, musicians, good humans. It’s work that resounds with human empathy, booms with love, serves others, nurtures a healthy self. I’m at an age now where I will never see my students fully grown. I won’t know what happens to them. They won’t remember me. They won’t remember the day the wool roving turned to felt, or when the bird lady showed them how a feather zips, or when the mystery box arrived from New York City and we had to use the clues to figure out where our pen-pal class lived.
It’s OK to have quiet, good work. In fact it’s sufficient to not even be the very, very best at this quiet, good work. What has happened is this: I’ve gotten to do work that is infinitely impossible to conquer. I’ve waited for that day to come for over 30 years. When I taught perfectly, everyone learned exceedingly well and all the test scores were at least 85 percent. So greedy — why not a whole year where every teaching decision was right? Now I know: It won’t be happening. The true joy has resided in trying, showing up, and continuing the quest of human curiosity for learning as a teacher, and a learner.
I have a picture of my grandmother, in the early 1900s, standing in front of a chalkboard facing her math students. She was a little shy and quiet when I knew her. But as a young woman, she had the courage to stand up, and share what she knew. It’s what teachers really do best: divulge what they know, who they are, and who you are in their eyes.
Kris Potter lives in South Minneapolis, where she teaches at a play-based preschool.
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