When I was a student teacher, my cohort group would meet every couple of weeks. Our coordinator (the liaison between the university and the middle school) was this tough old woman with the kind of zeal for education that anyone would find enviable. She also had a resume the length of my arm: teacher for a billion years, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, HR coordinator. Unwilling to completely retire, she guided the fresh faces of the student teaching program. She walked slowly, vocally despised driving of any kind, and her nails were always perfect. I loved her. She was experienced, she was direct, and she answered every little question with brutal honesty.
One day, us student teachers were talking about the work load. Let me stress: the work load for new teachers is immense. It is overwhelming at best, and burn-out worthy at worst. Linda, the coordinator, leaned back in her chair and glanced out the window, which overlooked the staff parking lot.
“When I was a principal, I hated seeing teachers leave late. Every school has a couple who do that. They come before everyone else, when it’s still dark. When they leave it’s dark too, and they’d often be lugging stacks of papers and carts of projects. I knew they were going to go home and keep working on school stuff. I hated that.”
We all looked at each other and looked at her. Isn’t that a hallmark of a good teacher? The kind of person that goes early and stays late?
Linda sighed. “In this profession, you have to take care of yourself. You can’t give 100% to your students every day. Give it to them when you can, sure. But if some days, you have to give them 70%, so that you save your sanity, do it.” She looked at us. Leveled with us, the kind of honest gaze that people of a certain age can just lay on you. “It’s better to give 70% and still be in the profession in five years. Your students will be okay. You need to be okay, too.”
I clung to that advice like it was a ship mast in the middle of an epic sea storm, because that’s what student teaching feels like. I worked my ass off most days and some days… I didn’t. Some days I rested or ignored school, or let papers sit for a day or three extra. I left student teaching excited about teaching, not scared of it.
I continued to set boundaries with my teaching. I refused to take work home (except essays. Essays almost always come home.) I came early many days because I liked it and I felt productive, but I often left exactly on time.
We glorify teachers who ruin their lives for teaching. Take Freedom Writers, that Hilary Swank movie. In the movie, the selfless teacher slaves for her students, going so far as to get a second job to support her classroom supplies, so that she can be everything and more for her students. She works heinous hours. Her marriage falls apart. She about loses her mind. And yeah, she helped those kids. And that’s great. But at what price?
I work with a phenomenal teacher who consistently amazes me. He is a department head, his lesson-planning is superb, he coaches like three different sports, is working towards administrative positions, and volunteers all the time. One day I was asking about his personal life. He told me that he had a girlfriend. When I asked about kids, he kind of shrugged and said that he didn’t really have time for them. From his tone, I felt like he was implying that he wanted kids. When I inquired further (because I suck at boundaries,) he admitted that he didn’t think he could be a good father because of all the stuff he does at school.
I am not the end-all be-all for my students.
My students are not my end-all, be-all.
I am not their friend.
I am not their counselor.
I am not their parent.
Point of fact, I am someone’s parent. He is not my student. As of this publishing, he is 20 months old and happily asleep in the next room.
I want to take care of my students. I want to give them 100% on the days that I can, because I like to and they need it. But more than that, I want to remain in the profession. And more than both those things, I want to be a good mom. And yeah, sometimes I have to choose between being a shitty mom and a shitty teacher. And I can promise you, when it comes down to it, I would rather be a shitty teacher than a shitty mom.
Right now, I am the end-all, be all for my kid.
And in many ways, he is my end-all.
Good teachers go home on time. Good teachers take care of themselves. Good teachers work to balance their home life and their professional life. I don’t always get that balance right (in fact, I often fail,) but at least I know what my priorities are and I work towards them accordingly.