Of course, if you ask anyone who has been in this profession for any amount of time--three months to thirty years, they will say, “But some days, I don’t feel a lot of love for my job, or my kids, or all the tasks I have to do. Some days I feel annoyed, frustrated, at the end of my rope, burnt out. Some days I wonder if I’m really cut out to be a teacher.” To begin, I will note that in terms of a career, teaching is the only job I have ever done, so I do not have first-hand knowledge as to whether or not these thoughts enter the minds of those in other professions. I don’t personally know if surgeons complain about their patients to themselves, or if CEOs sit at their desks and question their life choices. But my guess is it is likely that everyone has moments like this in any vocation. For some reason, however, it sometimes feels almost taboo to admit it. No one wants to picture Miss Honey from Matilda as sitting with her head in her hands at 4:00 pm on a Thursday afternoon, slumped over a pile of papers. I for one, always pictured my most inspiring teachers to have loved everything they did.. Yet, since becoming a teacher myself, I have realized that there must have been some days when this was not the case. And yet that did not change the fact that they were dynamic and motivational nonetheless. I have had conversations with colleagues about these feelings on several occasions; they always happen behind closed doors in hushed voices. It is okay to have days like this. We need to first admit that we do.
First of all, it is important that you go into teaching out of a sense of love--for whatever drives you to teach--but if you also go into teaching expecting to feel this way all the time, you may feel surprised and maybe even guilty or ashamed when those moments arise at which you don’t feel this way. I think it’s important to normalize this experience and to say this: every teacher has days when they feel this way. You are not alone. Personally, I have noticed that the times when I feel the least amount of love for my job are also the times when I feel the most self-doubt about my teaching abilities. When we feel like our best isn’t enough, we will often blame the students, the system, that angry parent, or the unsatisfied colleague. But if we really look hard enough, at the root of it, the parts of ourselves that really need our attention are those that feel hurt, dejected, or incompetent. This, also, is completely normal and I argue, a real phenomenon in teaching that deserves to be discussed as well.
Okay, okay. I know, I still haven’t gotten to the part about love. Now that we’ve established what I believe are normal feelings that every teacher experiences at one time or another, I would like to share strategies that I have used to help me through those times when love has been the last thing on my mind. To help myself through these times, I keep a collection of inspiring quotes nearby when I need a boost. You can set up a Pinterest board on which to save them or keep them in a drawer, but for me, I have found it helpful to keep them visible at all times in case I need to quickly glance at them for support. Here are two of my favorites:
● There’s the classic Gandhi quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
● And, there’s the quote by Emily Dickinson that was give to me by one of my students: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
During those moments when it is just you and twenty-five children (or teenagers) and your stomach is tightening up and your breathing is becoming shallow, a quote like one of these can give you a push to keep going. In addition to these quotes I keep a binder where I save notes that students have written, pictures they have drawn, or poems they have composed. Referring to such tokens of appreciation can help remind you of how valued you really are, in moments when it may be difficult to feel. Reading over students’ notes can also help you to put things in perspective and reflect on “the bigger picture.” At the end of the day, try to think about why you went into teaching and remember, there’s always tomorrow. There’s always a new day.
Now let’s discuss how important it is to teach out of love for your students. When I was a student in my teacher preparation program, I remember trying to imagine my future students from the staged photographs I saw in my textbooks. I imagined our future interactions and classroom activities together, but nothing prepared me for the real people I would encounter. In my seven years of teaching, this is what I have learned: students are quirky. They have idiosyncrasies that I could have never thought up from college lectures. Each one is a bundle of complications and energy and chaos and imagination and loud, fast voices and wide, sporadic movements. You can hear them down the hall, whizzing past their lockers, chattering and laughing and just...being so...alive. It used to overwhelm me--the chaos, all the sounds and actions I couldn’t control. But then I softened. I listened. I listened to what they were saying when they thought I wasn’t listening. I watched them interact with their friends in all their silliness, and I tried to remember what it was like to be a kid again. This is their life. Their life isn’t my life. It’s not bills and test scores and dishes and evaluations. It’s the Patriots Super Bowl win, the back handspring they’ve finally mastered, and the puppy they just got yesterday. When you realize that you are here with them, and they are here with you, that for some reason or another you’re spending this year--this single year out of their lives together--you suddenly may feel love. Someday they’re not going to bee bop around giggling and being loud and unpredictable. But they are today, and this is life. Teaching out of love means you recognize and appreciate the life that students bring into yours. It is embracing the energy and unpredictability and seeing that this may be what it means to be human.
Once you have learned how to love from this space, you may be surprised at what you see. You may find yourself appreciating that student who never seems to get the right answer who, no matter how many times he (or she) raises his hand, never stops trying, never stops shouting out the wrong answer with such excitement that it becomes endearing. This brings me to my next point: It is important to love your students for who they are, not how they perform. Never see a student for his or her academic performance, for there is so much more to see. They may be funny, kind, or thoughtful, and when it comes down to it, they will leave your class in June. While it is important that they learn how to write a thesis statement, it is also important that they become good people and are recognized for these traits they possess outside of academics. There are many students out there who walk around feeling unloved for one reason or another. Teachers can be a source of care, validation, and confidence boosting in the unique position that they hold in a student’s life.
As a sixth grade teacher, I always try to remember how difficult (seemingly impossible) it was to love oneself during adolescence. I talk about this feeling openly so students know that they’re not alone. Students who struggle in school especially may feel unloved. They may feel like they’re constantly disappointing people, whether it be themselves, their teachers, or their parents. It is important that they know that you see them for much more than a score on a piece of paper. Lastly, for many students the feeling of being unloved may appear in a number of ways, some of which may be disruptive or defiant behavior. While it may be difficult to remember this at the time, in moments like this I try to remember that people often show the need for love in the most unlovable ways. Teachers must respond from a place of patience and compassion to show students the love that they may need--or be too stuck to ask for.
While teaching from a place of love for our students can help us find meaning and satisfaction in our work, teaching from a place of self-love is just as vital in order for us to experience a sense of fulfillment in our everyday lives. Maintaining self-love can be especially trying some days, specifically in those moments when we feel numerous external pressures. To teach in the 21st century means that we must hold ourselves--and our students--to high standards (many of which are externally imposed). Of course we want to do justice to the next generation and help to create innovative, critical thinkers. But sometimes, getting twenty-five students to follow directions and place their worksheets in the correct folder is a legitimate challenge. My point is, there are days when those standards feel impossible to meet. This can be difficult to handle if--as I have discovered with most of the teachers I have met--you tend to be somewhat of a perfectionist. While this is an excellent quality to possess in terms of planning lessons, staying organized, and maintaining an orderly classroom environment, it can also make any lesson that didn’t go your way, an email left unanswered, or a quiz that 75% of the class bombed feel like a tough hit to your ego. Likewise, perfectionism can also make it difficult to deal with constructive criticism, which (as I have learned time and time again!) is the only way we can truly become the best teachers we can be.
While we often teach our students that it is okay to take risks and to make mistakes, many of us have a hard time allowing ourselves the same chances. The principal observed us and the bell rang before we could wrap up our lesson. After teaching nouns for forty-five minutes, the students had no clue of what I was talking about the next day. It is easy to turn on ourselves and say things like “I’m a terrible teacher.” “I should have planned better.” Or “Why did so many kids fail this test? It must be because I don’t know how to teach.”
But here’s the thing: Would we ever say something like this our students? The Growth Mindset, a model used in several classrooms, teaches the idea that mistakes are a part of the learning process, and are even essential to growth. Too often we do not see this same patience and understanding exercised with teachers. Teaching, I have come to realize (as one who comes from a family of engineers) is actually a lot like the field of engineering. You have a result that you’re aiming for, you do your research and predict the outcome that will occur under certain conditions, and you try your best and hope that your plan will succeed. After each test-run, you analyze the data, attempt to figure out what went wrong, then plan and try again. Part of maintaining self-love is allowing ourselves to make mistakes and to remember our strengths in the midst of failure. Otherwise, you a.) will never sleep at night, b.) go to work feeling depressed everyday or c.) burnout.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I suggest you find the love that drives you to teach. What is it about the profession that has attracted you? What do you love about helping children, preteens, or teenagers through their lives? What do you love about History, Science, Math, or English? What did you love about your own inspiring teachers? What do you love about yourself as a teacher? Write it down, and keep it somewhere where you can refer back to it during moments when love is hard to find. Happy Valentine’s Day! May you always teach from a place of love. :)
Lindsey Neves is a full-time Middle School English Teacher in North Attleborough, MA. Lindsey is also a Freelance Writer, Editor, and SEL Advocate; she is an active member of the Social and Emotional Learning Alliance of Massachusetts (SAM)!