From 8am to 4pm, I’m a special education teacher. I’ve been a teacher for three years now, and I have a lot of feelings about it. Some days, it’s really flipping hard – usually emotionally, sometimes physically. I’ve also had really easy days. I’ve had days where I’ve left work feeling inspired about what I do, and days where I’m left thinking “What’s the point?”
Some days look like the photo above – messy and chaotic. My first two years, I would cry before, during and after work. Those first two years were spent at a school that I did not feel valued at. I worked in a classroom with students with moderate to severe disabilities, ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. I had no experience with teaching before (my degree was in exercise science), and had come to teaching through Teach for America. I would come in early, stay late and work my butt off on weekends to prepare things for the room that would inevitably be ruined. I can’t blame the kids for that – it was, for many of them, their first experience outside of their parent’s homes. Many had experienced more trauma than most adults experience throughout their lives. Most of them just yearned for attention from somebody, anybody.
Those first two years I felt more like a babysitter than an educator. A good day was one in which I didn’t have to file an incident report about a student being hurt. A good day was not having a piece of wood furniture thrown at me. A great day was getting through lessons – it didn’t matter how well or how thoroughly. I was working full time and going to school. I hated it, but I stuck through because I had made a commitment and I knew damn well that if I left, those kids would be left without a teacher for the rest of the year. My little sister has been in a similar classroom her whole life, and I knew the impact her teachers had made on her. Regardless of how I felt day to day, I knew my impact on these kids could be powerful.
After those two years, I switched from elementary to high school. I now teach students with similar disabilities, but in grades 9, 10 and 11. The difference is astounding. I leave work with energy now.
I equate teaching elementary school to teaching little humans how to navigate social settings for the first time. “Don’t lick your friends!” “You cannot eat out of the garbage bin!” “Chairs are for sitting, not kicking!” Teaching high school is more about preparing these students, who are accustomed to the school setting of following preset rules, how to function in the real world. We take trips to grocery stores to compare prices on cereal. We practice calling Best Buy for more information on their sales. We use the computer to search for tickets to basketball games. I rarely raise my voice, and the kids respect me and understand that I am there to help them.
My work now feels more meaningful, not that my work in the past wasn’t. In order to take these field trips and to practice these real world skills, my students had to master how to attend to school. Their elementary and middle school teachers instilled those skills in them, and I recognize and understand how difficult that job was. I’m not sure if teaching is something that I can do in the long term. It drains me, to think about every kid, every day and then do what’s best for all of them. I get emotional when I hear what my students have gone through. Experiencing what it’s like to work in one of the largest school districts has made me aware of problems (that have solutions), which are harming our future generations. Maybe one day, I will be a person who has the solutions to make the system work. For now though, I will continue to be the teacher that my students need. I will continue to advocate for them, listen to them and educate them. Fingers crossed that today is a good day. How can it not be, when I received the note below on Friday?