The terrible events in Newtown, Connecticut this week have made me reflective in more ways than one. As a mother, I worry about my two children heading off to their elementary school each day. As a wife, I worry about my husband heading off to work at a hospital. As a teacher, I worry about my students and their lives inside my building and out.
I am a special education teacher. I teach students with a variety of special needs-ADHD, learning disabilities, emotional disturbances and autism. I have worked in the same urban school district since I began teaching in December of 2007. While I had many lessons to learn in my first years of special education, my rudest awakening came when I discovered that the unspoken disability that many of my students suffered from was poverty. Students arrived to school hungry, dependent on free breakfast. They arrived in unwashed clothes, without lunch money or food, without school supplies. Without medication they needed in order to manage attention problems or mental illness because their parents couldn’t afford it during any given month. They came from single mother households, single grandmother households or foster care. They worked jobs of their own at night and arrived to school the next morning exhausted. In the worst case scenarios, they were soon-to-be parents or already parents themselves. I was struck by the hopelessness, the anger, the fear that seemed to dominate most of their actions. I was often angry and sad that so much of my job seemed futile in light of what these kids faced outside of my classroom.
How do I overcome those outside influences and convince children that learning something like chemistry or physics is worthwhile? How do I instill a sense of self-efficacy in them, when they blame the world around them for their failures? How do I make 50 minutes of their day meaningful? How can I do all of this without feeling like I want to throw my hands up in the air and give up? After 6 years of teaching, I still don’t know the answer to those questions, but this career is the marathon I run every day. It’s the endless race that great teachers around the world are trying to win. It’s exhausting. It’s a mental and physical challenge of endurance. It’s why such a huge percentage of teachers leave the career within their first five years. Those of us that keep coming back to the classroom are the endurance athletes of education. We keep training, we keep tweaking our form, we sacrifice time out of the rest of our lives to make what we do in the classroom better. We keep fighting the fight, some days stronger than others. We align ourselves with other great teacher-athletes, creating our own race crews, friends that can cheer us on and lend us a shoulder to cry on when the race doesn’t go as we planned. We keep leaping over the hurdles placed in front of us by parents, administrators, politicians and society in general. We line up every morning at the starting corral of our classroom doors hoping we are prepared for what the day has to bring.
The teaching community grieved this week with the families and friends of the Newtown victims. We see our own students among the faces of the deceased, our colleagues among the faces of the teachers who died protecting their students. We will practice lockdown drills with our classes, we will reassure our students that they are safe and we will do our best to carry on despite the fear we may be feeling ourselves. We will reflect. We will hope. We will keep teaching. It’s the marathon we run every day.