The Hardest Thing About Teaching

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The Hardest Thing About Teaching
One of my amazing former classes

7 years ago I shared this, The Hardest Thing About Teaching, on my personal page. I taught high school English for 7.5 years and at least 7 of my students from those years have passed away. 

What They Don’t Tell You…

In some ways teaching reminds me of pregnancy. You know, when you’re pregnant there are certain things that people just don’t tell you. Maybe they don’t because if they did, you wouldn’t want to be pregnant to start with. And sometimes they can’t tell you because every experience is different. Even if they did tell you, you wouldn’t believe them or really understand. The hardest thing about teaching is not grammar. It’s not diagramming sentences. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not complaints about assignments or test scores. The hardest thing is loss. The unanticipated loss.

It’s the student from my first year teaching who was so much taller than me that he called me, respectfully, “Shorty.” Years after he graduated, I’d go through his line at Food Lion and we would exchange Hello’s and How Are You’s and still, always, a smile and “Hey Shorty.” And then, a car accident, and you know I don’t ever go to that Food Lion much anymore and maybe that’s why. 

It Wasn’t the Plan

And then there’s the unpacking of boxes in the garage and tucked away I find old essays, journals, projects from other students who have died, and not only from car accidents. One of my former students died waiting on the kidney transplant list, and I didn’t even know he was sick. One died being a hero, standing up for what’s right and good, protecting a total stranger. Two others were shot to death. They all died younger than me. That wasn’t the plan. When I spent 90 minutes with them every day from August to January, and sometimes August to June in yearlong classes and multiple years with some of my students, I saw their lives in color. I never saw them ending.

The Hardest Thing About Teaching 

I didn’t kneel beside desks to discuss a student’s research paper and future career topic with any consideration that they would die before the age of 25. I thought they had a lifetime to pursue their dream…and they didn’t. Instead of them raising their children, I was sending flowers and going to funerals. Now that I am a parent, the heartache is double. It’s more real. I understand a little better what no one could ever have explained or prepared me for. The hardest thing about teaching is loss and memories that flood the mind in a fast, scrambled mix of joy and sorrow.

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