When I began my teaching career more than a decade ago, I remember this phrase buzzing between the seasoned teachers with whom I worked. Whenever we found ourselves picking up the slack in a rat-tattered budget or completing tasks that — at the time — felt as though they were not best suited to the expertise of an educator, you could bank on someone muttering this token catch all clause.
“…And other duties, as necessary.”
It was this phrase, vague by design, that spoke volumes in describing the true nature of our roles.
Today, I look back on this past decade and feel as though I’m in the midst of my second career. I’m still an elementary school teacher, but oh, how times have changed. I owe much of this transition to my own professional relocation. As an under-ripened professional, I worked in a small (by comparison), rural county. Its leadership was very much a “good ol’boys”, fraternal pack. My principals were in the twilight of their careers, and I was a wide-eyed, idealistic, childless young thing.
Now, I serve in a school more approximately three times the size of my previous schools. Amidst a county as large and diverse as this, my school is a shining star. We are a model of modern excellence in education — a feat we work HARD to maintain. My instruction has been wholly transformed, and I never, ever want to go back.
Quite honestly though, the security on which I once thought I could bank indefinitely, has vanished. Like rain in a dust bowl, nothing is for certain anymore. Ten years ago, I would have said — unwaiveringly — that public education would WITHOUT FAIL be there for me and my children throughout my lifetime, and probably the lifetimes of my children. Today? I have my doubts, to say the least.
Which makes me think about those “other duties”.
Who — if not me — will help that boy get his teeth cleaned for the first time ever at the age of 11?
Who — if not us — will call his mother and beg her to take him to get the cavities filled, so he can stop crying each afternoon and start learning to read?
Who — if not me — will talk to parents about the trouble their child is having with friends on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in class?
Who — if not for a teacher — will help divorced parents get on the same page long enough to support their child academically?
Who will teach parents how they can help their children study?
Who — if not for me — will whisper in that child’s ear, “I want to see you do [this]….because I know you are smarter than this.”
Who — if not me — will tell that child that I’ve been there too — it’s going to be OK — we can get through this together.
Who will tell them they’re beautiful?
Who will read to them with all the right voices, just like the character sounds in their heads?
Who will cry in all the sad parts and ask them for a tissue?
Who will help them lie in their stories — I mean REALLY lie, let’s make it a whopper of a tale — because Writers have PERMISSION to lie?
Who will squeeze them and get all teary-eyed looking at their baby pictures, as though it was their own baby standing so grown beside them today?
Who else is going to fuss at them like a Mama, hug them when they get hurt, worry about them at night, and pray/hope/wish/dream for their futures?
Ten years ago, I was Carly’s first grade teacher. Carly was six. As I dismissed my class each day, I stood at my door and gave every child a hug or a high five (you know — for the ones that were already “too cool” to hug the teacher each day). Carly, prepared as always, was most often one of the first out the door….but Carly was ALWAYS the last to leave. She stood, leaning from the weight of a backpack as big as her, waiting patiently for me to close the door behind me. Every single day, for 180 days, she took my hand in hers and we walked together to the car line. Every single day, she waved good-bye to me and I watched her little sandy blonde ponytail bee-bop to and fro as she bounced her way back to her mother.
I still love my little Carly.
Rashard. Jasmine. Joseph — who wrote his name with a “Flying J”. Monique. Dakota. Jesus — who looked like a little Mexican Buddha, just as cute as he could be.
And Paul. I taught Paul in first grade, and again in third. Every Christmas, I hang the ornament on my tree that he, with the help of his mother, sewed for me with his six year-old hands. He cut out rocking horses from fabric and glued them to the hand-stitched miniature pillow. I hang it by the little red ribbon he carefully attached. I remember how proud I felt to see him growing into such a little man. He was such a good big brother to his baby sister. He was such a smart little guy, and good to the bone.
Who will carry these memories with them forever, if not for teachers like me?
These are the duties we are charged with. The loving of and caring for children.
And now, I feel kicked and beaten. I feel abused and undermined. We are taken for granted and belittled.
And on top of it all, now I’m crying for my own children, too. Who will love them? Who will carry them in their hearts forever, when all of the good ones are gone?