The beginning of every new school year is both exciting and exhausting, for teachers as well as students. Building a community from a classroom of strangers is hard work, though nothing is more rewarding.
I forget from one year to the next what a challenge it is, how wary my students are about school, about teachers, about adults in general. Convincing them that I’m not going to let them down like so many other people in their lives is difficult – and sometimes impossible.
Nowhere is this task more apparent than in my creative writing class, possibly the most diverse in the high school. This year is no exception. Ranging from freshmen to seniors, of various races and ethnicities, they include gifted students taking Advanced Placement courses as well as special education students working toward a certificate of attendance instead of a diploma.
The only way we can become a community of learners is if we get to know each other, so I require that they read aloud what they have written each day. Everyone, including me, writes for 10 minutes, the only rule being that they can’t write about something they don’t want to share with their classmates.
Their 10-minute journal entries are charming. Hilarious. Exciting. Thought-provoking. Philosophical. Sentimental.
But mostly they are heartbreaking. In this rural school district where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, my students often write about how hard their lives are, about their parents who are absent because of work or divorce or restraining orders or death, about how poor health and homelessness and bad choices keep them from a more hopeful future.
They are not self-pitying but matter-of-fact – which is, in itself, heartbreaking.
One girl wrote that for years she worried she was also doomed to divorce because all the adults she knows – from grandparents to aunts and uncles to her parents – have separated.
“Then one day I had an epiphany,” she wrote, putting to use a word she said she had learned in an English class. “I don’t have to be like them. It was liberating, realizing that I can make my own destiny.”
Her pluck and resilience might seem remarkable except that so many of my students echo it – from the girl who was sexually assaulted as a toddler to the teenager who lost a brother to drug use. Despite catching the school bus before 6 a.m. and not getting home until 12 hours later – and despite not always knowing where they will sleep when they do – the students I know show up most days glad to be at school.
They know that the adults there care about them – from the cooks to the principals, the custodians and the attendance monitor, the teachers and aides and librarians and secretaries and resource officers. All of us keep coming back because we make a difference in the lives of children. No one works long in education who doesn’t believe that.
I never used to think about leaving teaching. Even in the years when I taught the most damaged children – those classified as emotionally handicapped and isolated from their peers – I knew this is what I wanted to do.
For the most part it still is. This is my 36th year of meeting students, of watching a classroom of strangers turn into a community of learners. Once again I’m recharged and humbled by their courage, by the difficulties they face just to get to school and stay there and succeed.
But this is a particularly difficult time to be a teacher in the Carolinas. The governors and the legislatures of both states have decided that corporations rather than children should be their priority, and their actions prove that – cutting resources for public schools, diverting money to vouchers and charters, forcing schools to eliminate essential staff and programs, devaluing the work teachers do to improve their skills and earn advanced degrees, keeping their wages low, encouraging inexperienced and temporary teachers to rotate in and out of their school districts, evaluating teachers with invalid metrics, emphasizing standardized testing.
I don’t blame anyone for bowing out of the classroom. At some point in the future I may have to do the same.
Every child matters
But for now my students keep me there. Too many of them have already been let down by the adults in their lives, the ones who know them personally as well as the ones in Raleigh and Columbia who make decisions that add to their suffering. I want to be like the other committed adults who work in my school, people who make it a place where every child belongs, where every child matters.
Observer columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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