When teaching hurts
Teaching is hard. I knew that. It comes with the profession.
Late nights, early mornings.
Too little time, too much to do.
Kids’ bad attitudes, parents’ bad attitudes, other teachers’ bad attitudes.
Discipline, detentions, dress code.
But this isn’t a story about the physical demands of teaching. Or even the stress that comes with it. This is a story about when teaching hurts.
Earlier this week, one of our 7th grade girls tried to end her life. She is okay and she is safe. Everyone responded exactly how they needed to in the minutes that counted the most. Our school psychologist bravely stated — in the middle of a public school debrief this morning — ”the angels were with us.” There’s no question when you consider the order in which things happened and how people responded.
The angels were also with us as we began to unpack what happened. One of our students, a 7th grade girl, one of my basketball girls at the ripe age of 13 had the means and a plan to stop living.
Let that sink in for a few minutes.
At 13, our kids should be thinking about the fast-approaching end to middle school, the chance to be “top of the pack” the next fall, and choosing where they want to go to high school. They should be thinking about celebrity crushes, what’s hip on TV (YouTube and Netflix for today’s students), what they’re doing this weekend, who they want to ask or be asked by to the school dance, how and where they are going to spend their summer, and what’s trending in shoes, clothes, makeup, you name it.
They should never be thinking about a way to end it all.
The hard reality is that many of our students think about ways to escape life. They use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, they join gangs to feel a sense of belonging and “love” in the best way they’ve experienced it in their short lives, and sex for many of the same reasons. And, like this week, sometimes suicide.
At a middle school, our kids land somewhere between the ages of 11 and 15. Their lives are hard, much harder than mine was in middle school, despite my perceived pre-teen angst. Many are latchkey kids, who are also responsible for raising their younger siblings and keeping them safe. Some don’t eat outside of school. Ever. None of them have enough money to break the cycle of poverty.
I have two 8th grade students who play “dad” in their single-income, single mother homes. One is the sole caretaker for four siblings, the other for two. The biological dad of Boy №1 — as I’ll refer to him — was deported a number of years ago, and his stepdad, the closest thing he has to a father figure, lives and works in another state. Boy №2’s dad works nights. Neither student is on track academically. Both are highly at risk of not walking across the stage at 8th grade Continuation, which could be a significant and lasting disappointment for their bright-eyed and eager younger siblings, who think the entire world of their brothers.
The boys have cussed out teachers, made verbal and physical threats against adults in the building and are no longer allowed in any teacher’s classroom except for when they have to be in core academic classes by state mandate.
Boy №1 is with me twice per day, once in a 1:1 “class” and once as my teacher’s assistant for the class he took last quarter. Boy №2 recently became my other teacher’s assistant for the same class, which he also took last quarter, and not because he finished at the top of his class. His grades actually landed him 15th of 15 students.
The girl who tried to make it all disappear takes care of her sister who is in first grade. Their dad is raising them on his own, with the occasional help of grandma. Their older brother was murdered a couple years ago. I’ve seen dad cry during conferences.
When I had her in 6th grade, she was — and still can be — a fiery thing in the classroom. Her backtalk and bitch-mode is on another level when she turns on her A-game. She either loves or hates you, and sometimes both. In the same day.
She fought me every single day of 6th grade until I stepped in as an assistant basketball coach. Now, little over a year later, I know her story, I know her family and I know her heart. We also gracefully (or hilariously, depending on how you look at it) survived a zero-and-eight basketball season record, mostly by her picking out teachers, refs and perfect strangers who were my “boyfriend” and relentlessly teasing me until that game was over. In turn, she opened up about superficial things, like who she had a crush on from the other team (or from our boys’ team) or what she did with her friends on the weekends. Let’s be honest, it was mostly about boys.
We “talk” almost every day at recess, which is far less “talk” and more of her posturing that she’s going to kick somebody’s ass on the basketball court. She’s half my size.
During basketball season, I’d sit right in the middle of the girls on the bench while we waited for the boys’ game to end. We took selfies, and there was quite a bit of “Miss, look!”, which resulted in an unsuspecting Snapchat appearance. With bunny ears, googly eyes, princess crowns or any number of the other Snap filters. She loves making me look like a fool. And I love that she loves making me look like a fool.
When word spread rapidly about her attempt, I broke into a million tiny pieces.
These kids are not actually kids, but mini-adults trying to operate in a kid-size body with a significantly underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. They carry more in their abbreviated experience on this planet than I may ever carry in the entirety of my life. She does. And she will continue to.
This is when teaching hurts. Forget the grading and the long hours. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can break a teacher’s heart more than knowing that a student is in pain.
Boy №1 and Boy №2 are in pain. Daily. Without the capabilities of processing pain. Their “outbursts” in their classrooms can be translated quite simply— “Please love me. Please pay attention to me. Please show me you care.”
Unquestionably, the 13-year-old girl was in pain. The pain of years of trauma following her brother’s death. The pain of living without a mother. The pain of being the mother for her young sibling, who she loves with her whole heart. The pain of watching her dad struggle, even visibly, to try to provide for his two girls.
As teachers, we absorb the pain of our students and their families. When our students bear the pain of trauma, broken homes, drug and alcohol addiction, neglect, abuse, bullying or the feelings of not being wanted, we carry those pains in our hearts too.
Teachers don’t enter the profession for the easy lifestyle, short work week or abundant compensation. Hardly. There is a mission aspect of being a teacher that resides in the deepest place of the heart. To teach is to shepherd developing souls on the good days and on the really not-so-good days.
There is no cure for the pain of teaching. But there are a few things you should have in your toolbox should you pursue this vocation. You will need friends, the real kind, who you can open up to when it hurts. You will need some kind of physical outlet, be that running, yoga, competitive sports, gardening, painting, a punching bag, or a combination that suits you. And you’ll need a reminder to do your physical activity of choice even when you are exhausted. You will need a therapist, counselor or social worker to help you process what you see, hear and experience.
And you will need faith. Lots of it. It won’t fix the bad days, but it will soften the blow and it will get you out of bed the next morning to go back into battle.
When the battles get worse and the pain more intense, hold on to your faith. Know that your presence alone is strength for your students.
Be grateful for the amount you have invested in the vocation of teaching. Your kids — they will all become your kids — are worth every single bit of it. And they need it. They need YOU. Just as you are, whole or pieced together, strong or not, to walk with them when life gets really hard.
No one should want to end it all. Not at 13, not at 30, not at 65, not ever. Help your students see that. Help them see that they are really, truly, radically loved.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
*If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. Mental health professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the service is free and confidential.