Reflections on an Empty Classroom

Ten months ago, I walked into room 375 with that feeling I always get at the beginning of a school year. The classroom was quiet then, as it is now, and I have come to believe that classrooms aren’t meant to be quiet. It’s awkward and against their nature. On that day, before the start of this school year, I sent a note to some friends and it included this:

"There is no hiding.  The next 180 days will bring up strengths and flaws in me that I never thought to notice before.  There will be a heavy dose of beauty, as there usually is, but there will also be a steady pounding of failure and frustration.  That repetition, complete with timed bells, alarms, and scheduled days, will simultaneously produce moments of great variation and surprise.  Life is exciting beyond the mundane outer shell.  Teaching reminds me of that." 

I wrote those words then with a confidence that annoys me now. And, in a few months, as I prepare to do this for 180 more days, I will have the same foolish certainty about the next year. In a sense, I was, and will be, right. The past 10 months were lined with a “heavy dose of beauty” and a “steady pounding of failure and frustration.”  But those words are painfully incomplete, in the way that words often are about important things. “Failure” and “beauty” didn’t have faces then. Now, 180 days later, there are faces, memories, and scars that fill those words with meaning. Relationships and life play out like this, and teachers are fortunate and cursed to run this cycle so frequently. The good teachers, I think, reflect with a grateful heart while they nurse still throbbing wounds. I’ll try to do that here.  

For your sake, I’ll spare everybody the melodrama of my personal teacher reflections, but just generalize some of what all teachers are feeling as they sit in their empty classrooms. Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done, and that is for so many different reasons. 180 straight days pounds on us, and we develop some kind of connection with 100 or so different little (or not so little) people who, like us, bring their broken selves into this building every day.  

Failure has become such a normal part of my life since I first stepped foot in a classroom. In 8 years, I’m not sure that I’ve gotten any better at dealing with that. It is probably the reason for the blood pressure, the anxiety, the sleeplessness, and the wine.  And yes, the year held a healthy handful of failed lesson plans and bad teacher ideas. Those failures, however, sting less than the students who just didn’t get much from class. As an 11th grade teacher in a failing school, I see many students for whom school is not working.  I know the objective response- that there is no teacher that can be 100% successful. I can explain the reasons why students couldn’t “do school” this year, but that does not make it any easier.

The systems that we have in this country are designed to work against some people. Public education has been failing some people for centuries, and watching innocent young people fail in the mechanisms of a machine that is designed poorly begins to eat at the mind and heart of any good person. It’s one of the many reasons why this profession loses so many good people.

I knew at the beginning that failure was a part of this job. I didn’t, however, know the faces of the students who the system would fail, and the reasons we would give for failing them. And I didn’t know how that would eat at me in new ways this year, making me question, as I often do, whether I have the emotional strength and/or the prescription pills needed to keep doing this.   

But to the extent that we feel  failure, we also feel success. Likewise, as we allow ourselves to feel burdened for others, we also feel the freedom that some people experience. It is one of life’s truths- that evil and good are so intimately tied together. I could have never imagined the “beauty” that this school year would hold. As I look in front of me at the empty desks, I easily remember the smiles that filled them every day. I remember the hard-earned rapport of a classroom teacher and the feeling of that classroom once that atmosphere exists.

But people are more memorable than moments, smiles, or even feelings. I’ll remember the seniors who graduated this year. Graduation is an accomplishment for anybody, but so many students carried burdens to graduation. Burdens of macro problems like racism and stereotypes, and more micro- but equally heavy- challenges in family or community. It would be unfair to those students to share the specifics of those challenges here, but good teachers listen to these things, try to help carry the load for a bit, and give our students some extra push as they leave. I walked around the crowded patio outside of graduation a few days ago feeling honored that those graduates let me in on a small portion of their life. This work is too big for me, and moments like graduations remind me of that.

I watch the Juniors who had me this year move into their final year of high school. I have to remember my own life at that time, and the fears that accompany uncertainty. At 17 years old, it feels like you are about to leave the tunnel that you have been travelling in up to that point, and all these new surroundings will be exposed. However, as you enter your senior year, you still just see that distant light, glimmering 180 days away.  These students have a drive and motivation that inspires me. Watching students work, grow, learn and experience success is likely the greatest perk of my job. It far outweighs the district health insurance. Those are the moments that I wish I could bottle and give to everybody, because the experience changes my perspective every time. I feel fortunate to witness that moment in another person’s life each time it happens, like I am watching something important. I’m reminded that our best moments in life are made up of learning, and the celebration of that knowledge.

At the beginning of the year, I ended my note to friends like this:

"Society had made a great handshake with us, trusting that we will lead, guide, and teach with the care that our young people deserve."

There are two things that strike me as I conclude this year. The first is that I am thankful for that “handshake.” It is an honor to do this job. An honor that I never take lightly, and the pressure of that honor often crushes me. I imagine all teachers feel the weight of that “handshake” as we move into summer. We ask ourselves if we kept our end of the bargain.

The second thing is an admission. I worry, as many of us do, that this summer won’t give me what I need. I won’t find the energy, the re-growth, and the heart to do this again. The part of me that watched 100 students go through room 375 might not come back with enough strength to welcome 100 more in September. If it doesn’t, I’ll mourn that end in much the same way I am mourning this one. But I’ll trust that I am no longer the best person for the job. I will likely come back, I always do. 

Here’s to growing, I guess. And 180 more.