The Heartbreak of Teaching

What we can’t know when we’re faced with a group of students is what will happen to those students once they leave our care.

Care. I’ve written that word unconsciously, but now, deliberately, I think about it.

I’ve written and thought about what it means to teach, what it means to face a new group of students each year. I’ve been doing this for thirty years now — that’s a LOT of students, and inevitably, I’ve lost a few. They have faced addictions, their own demons, illness and violence. And they’ve blossomed too, into interesting adults with productive lives.

We’d like to think that after spending a few years in our classrooms, our students might be equipped with all that is necessary to navigate this world, because even though we spend our days teaching them how to construct sentences, or how to solve equations or to paint or act or sing or build robots, what we’re really teaching them is how to be. Aren’t we?

How to be awake to this marvelous life, how to discover their own passions and pursue them doggedly; how to think, how to rely on their own, smart brains and not be controlled by media, the government, anyone; how to make good choices, how to know their own self-worth; how to feel capable and confident and loved.

How to feel worthy.

So when, inevitably, one of our former students struggles — sometimes in public and devastating ways — we feel it too. We wonder if we did enough while the student was in our care. (Did we care? Enough?). We look back and we wonder, as in all retrospective wonderings — could we have done something differently? If we had done that one thing…if we had said that one thing…?

Now we know, if we’re not parents ourselves, just a tiny bit what it feels like to be a parent. Except in teaching — those young people are not in our daily lives. They leave our care. They head out into the world, sent off after the formal ceremony of graduation when we tell them via our speeches, you’re ready now. We’ve done our best. We hope you’ll be safe. 

And sometimes, for a myriad of reasons beyond our control, they’re not.

I can’t imagine, then, the terror of parenting, of hoping, hoping that what you’ve done is enough.

But what they don’t tell you when you start teaching is this: you are going to care. You are going to hope with all your heart that these vibrant young people in front of you will turn out OK. And they don’t tell you what to do if that turns out not to be the case.

1 thought on “The Heartbreak of Teaching

  1. shalocka

    Love this! Who knew what being a teacher is really like? It is SO much more than lecturing, giving assignments, handing out test and grading papers! That’s the surface. That’s what everyone “sees.” That’s the image/thought everyone has, but it’s more, becomes more (sometime to a teachers surprise – to my surprise).


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