Doing Our Best and Forgiving Ourselves
I taught 8th grade my first year of teaching. And my mom had cancer. She made it through Christmas, which made for a very fraught and not-at-all-restful Winter Break. Then she lost her battle in late January. On top of that, a persistent injury from working on a trail crew the previous summer meant that I was sometimes teaching in wrist braces on both hands. It was also a strange year at that middle school. The district was building a new K-8 that was going to result in liquidating half the school — but they didn’t tell me this (and that I probably wouldn’t have a job at that school the next year) until I asked what “Transition 2000” meant. The district started an inquiry about our Principal and let him go. As we rounded into spring, I got a different job at a high school in the district, and I took it even though I was still feeling ambivalent about teaching. I continued to put as much as I could into my teaching, even as I was on my last nerve, and even as that nerve was starting to fray. I would push the flashbacks aside, compose myself in my car, and go through the doors of the middle school as prepared as I could to be positive and present for my 8th graders.
This isn’t saying that I always pulled it off perfectly. Eighth graders can feel when you’re off and they often internalize it because they don’t always realize that someone else’s mood isn’t about them. On the contrary, eighth graders often go to, “I knew it, she hates me. I hate that fucking bitch.” Toward the end of the year, I even found out there was a persistent rumor that I hated the school choir (who hates the school choir?). As I was driving home I realized that there had been a concert back in February. One of the last things I’d done with both of my parents during Winter Break was go see Les Miserables in L.A. As luck would have it, all of the songs the choir was singing were from Les Miserables. Needless to say, I did not even last through the first song before I’d had to go back to my empty classroom and compose myself. I’d thought they hadn’t seen me leave, but it turned out that I had assumed wrong.
On the Friday of the second to last week of school, which was the last real week for our eighth graders, I was showing a film for the history teacher because our 8th grade team had used my lesson plans for our last week at another time (long story). The class was being difficult. When they couldn’t even handle watching the film, I gave them a pop quiz on it. While this was punitive and was NOT a good example of effective teaching, I was a first-year teacher, on the last full week, with 8th graders, who was also still grieving the death of her mother.
After school, I was in the team office helping a student with something, and the phone rang. I let the answering machine pick it up so I could keep talking to the student. When I checked the message later, it was from a parent whom we might now call a “Karen.” Let’s just say that her daughter had told me they had SIX Christmas trees in their house. Also, earlier in the year, when I caught her daughter in the hall, ditching another class, with my hall pass that had gone missing a week or two before, the parent had explained away her daughter’s behavior by telling me, “Well, my daughter doesn’t like your class.” From the timing of the message she’d left on the machine, it was clear she was calling from her minivan and that she was calling immediately after hearing whatever her daughter was upset about. Sure enough, it was a whole tirade about how her daughter was upset about the three-question pop quiz on a history video in what was supposed to be an English class, yada yada, yada. I was exhausted and my throat was feeling kind of scratchy, so I decided to go home and follow up on the call on Monday.
I ended up missing the whole last week of school because I’d come down with Strep Throat. I missed the eighth grade party, picnic, and everything else. I never got to say goodbye to my students. Looking back, I think I had put so much into making it through my first year that my body just gave out and made an executive decision that I was done.
I made it back the day after the last day of school, so I could at least join other teachers at the faculty breakfast, clean out my classroom, and say goodbye to them. I am not a crier at all, but that day, I was a basket case. I felt like I hadn’t been the teacher I wanted and like I had failed my students. All of the teachers had books we’d made out of construction paper and we wrote comments to each other. I felt like everything my colleagues had written was a veiled criticism of my teaching. For example, I took “you’re going to do well teaching high school,” as “you weren’t very good at teaching middle school.”
Teaching at the high school over the next several years actually turned out well. It was half the commute, the school was a good match for me, and they allowed me to teach a whole range of courses and students, from Language Arts 9 team-taught with a Special Education teacher, to Advanced World Literature, to Creative Writing.
Several years into teaching, I decided to apply to a PhD program. I needed to send the schools copies of all of my transcripts; teachers have a lot of transcripts because we take a lot of one-credit classes because we’re required to continue our training to move up the pay steps. Since I’d sent copies of all of those transcripts to the district, I decided the best way to get all of them would be to find them in my district Personnel File and make copies of them.
In the file, among all my other records, was a letter from the Karen parent from my first year. It was over a page about how I was a terrible teacher who had not taught a single useful thing all year and shouldn’t even be allowed near children. I hadn’t seen the letter before — apparently the Principal at the high school decided to just let it go to the personnel file but give me a fresh start. I still am grateful to him for that.
Reading that letter that day put me back in the same dark place I’d been in on that last Friday at my middle school. But only for a day. Those extra years had given me the distance to step back from it. In that space, I was able to wonder where that Karen’s soul was. Who writes something like that about a first-year teacher who had lost a parent in the middle of the school year? It also made me remember everything I’d done my first year, despite all of the hardships. I’d given teaching those eighth graders everything I had to give them that year. I’d worked myself until I had nothing left and was sick even into the first week or two of summer break. That day, I was able to take a deep breath and decide that if that wasn’t enough for some people, I was sorry. But that I had given them everything I had and that maybe I should forgive myself if a few malcontents felt like that still wasn’t enough.
The next year, as I was getting ready to move to another state for graduate school, I was going through my papers and found that construction paper booklet with comments from all the teachers I had worked during that first year. By this point, I’d seen many of them at other district in-services and events over the years, and I’d never gotten any vibe that they’d thought I was a terrible teacher who they had been glad to get rid of. Usually we reminisced about what a weird year that was and then they would say, “Oh, you were the poor dear who was a new teacher and whose mother died. We were really worried about you.” I re-read all of their comments. Only then did I realize that they had all written lovely notes. NONE of them had written anything to the effect that I had been a terrible teacher. That was what I had read into their comments in the headspace I had been in while recovering from Strep Throat, being exhausted from my first year, having to leave colleagues I liked and start new again somewhere else — all while grieving the loss of my mom.
The last year has been a hard one for virtually all of the teachers I know. We’ve had to change to online teaching, and sometimes change back again, only to change back again — or teach students both in-person and online simultaneously, which sounds like what Satan would invent if he was trying to create a Teacher Hell. Many of us have had to do this while supervising our own children at home, dealing with family issues, economic concerns, or even losses of loved ones.
Most parents and students have inspired us with their flexibility and understanding. But often we’ve been blamed for technology problems outside of our control, for students’ inability to complete their online assignments, for parents’ inability to motivate their children even their children are at home with them, because people didn’t like the online format, because people didn’t like they hybrid format, because we made students wear masks, because we were too lax on enforcing mask rules, because they couldn’t find the information we stayed up late to post in three different places, because we didn’t answer our emails at 11:00 pm, etc. Teaching can sometimes feel like a profession where no good deed goes unpunished. Sometimes all the work we do earns us recognitions and awards. Other times it gets us blamed, cursed out, or told off — and then blamed by our administrators who read that as an indication that we need to improve our people skills.
While I was in graduate school, my PhD advisor and I planned an international conference for over 500 people. As the Conference Coordinator, I spent a lot of the time on the first day behind the registration desk, troubleshooting all of the most problematic issues with all of the most disgruntled people. I was starting to feel like nothing was going well until I took a break and went to one of the sessions. That was when I realized that almost everyone was enjoying the conference. Most people had come, checked in without any hitches, gotten the folder a bunch of my friends in graduate school had assembled for free pizza, found the rooms they needed to find, and were engaged in listening to the wonderful sessions we’d spent months organizing. I’d only been hearing from the very small percentage of people who had experienced some kind of hang-up, and we were able to resolve almost all of those.
I’m writing about these experiences now, for other teachers, because for some of us this year might have felt like we’ve had more failures than we’re used to. Zoom crashed. Links didn’t work. Students were turning in blank assignments. We spent hours a day answering emails only to have people complain that we weren’t being responsive enough about answering emails. Students weren’t engaged. Students were getting confused. Their parents were getting confused. Students were black screens and we couldn’t tell if they were responsive or not. Sometimes they and their parents blamed us. Sometimes our administrators might have even blamed us if they were hearing that students and parents weren’t happy.
At this time, during our Winter Break, and as we move from one season to the next and one year to the next, it’s important to take that step back, to get out from behind our desks and computer screens, and look at what the majority of our students, parents, and colleagues are really doing and are really saying about us. We need to take a deep breath, and take that moment to celebrate all the students who we helped successfully improve their skills and complete their coursework DURING A PANDEMIC, while we were teaching in a format most of us had never planned to teach in. More importantly, we need to give ourselves grace for everything we hoped had gone better than it did. This year, almost all of us felt like new teachers again, and we should give ourselves the same grace we hopefully gave ourselves as new teachers. No one bats .400 when they’re brand new at something. We try it, we learn, and we move into the next term with new goals and with our heads held high because we know we poured everything we had into doing everything we could for our students.