Anxiety and joy in the classroom

Facing those back-to-school jitters as a teacher

5 minute read
One teacher's toolkit. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
One teacher's toolkit. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

“I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils every year on the first day of school if I knew your name and address.”

This is the promise Tom Hanks makes to Meg Ryan in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, and it perfectly encapsulates the romantic connotations of September. Forget the resolutions of a cold, clear December 31. For me, the ultimate season of reinvention is characterized by burnished leaves and wood shavings. Every September promises that I will be the perfect teacher: as fun as Ms. Frizzle, as wise as Mr. Feeny, as subtly commanding as Professor McGonagall (though certainly less British). I’m just a school bus, a picket fence, and a Scottish castle short of being the perfect amalgamation of all three.

Multiplying the question

Halfway through the month, though, and I’ve invariably failed to live up to the ideal in my head. I’ve spilled my coffee, been thwarted by the projector, written it’s where I should’ve written its, or allowed a student to get me off track during a math lesson by talking about Star Wars. And that is fine. I’ve long since made my peace with my own humanity, and to fail is human. Being the perfect teacher is an impossible goal, but the harder I strive, the closer I get.

What worries me is not that I will fail, but that the consequences of that failure will be borne by other people: younger, smaller people who’ve been conditioned to accept my role as an authority, however grudgingly. Will they understand enough about science to keep up in college? Can their writing pass muster on a resume? Am I simultaneously meeting the goals of the state, the IEP, the school, and my own personal convictions? Multiply that question by six students, six subjects, and six federal holidays to work around, and it’s no wonder that my top school supplies include coffee to keep up with the kids and ibuprofen to deal with the bureaucracy.

But far beyond the pursuit of academic goals is the worry that I’m not capable of teaching them the really important things. What’s the use of calculating the percentage of a whole if you won’t use that knowledge to tip your server properly? It’s important to know that Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize the March on Washington in 1963—it’s more important to understand why. And always, in the back of my mind, I wonder if I can keep them safe while they learn all those important things.

The kids know

It’s scary to see a school name trending on Twitter. The reason is almost always tragic. Realistically, I know that going to work as a teacher is no scarier than going to the store or an outdoor festival in terms of danger. The threat of violence is simply a reality that we exist inside now. It will change in the future, or it won’t. Still, it’s sobering to see “Active Shooter Drill” on the back-to-school agenda, wedged between classroom setup and CPR recertification.

The worst of it is that the kids know. Today’s 12-year-olds are significantly more social-media savvy than I am, and if I’m unplugging to spare my sanity, that means I risk being blindsided when a kid has a question about an event that I’ve missed out on. Even when I’m working with the same information, who am I to answer questions of such significance? I chose teaching because I like children and books, not because I think I have any wisdom worth sharing to a captive audience. Life would be a lot simpler if the worst thing about my job was a tortured recorder rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” at the winter recital.

Forget New Year’s resolutions. This is the feeling of a freshly sharpened pencil. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Forget New Year’s resolutions. This is the feeling of a freshly sharpened pencil. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Anticipation and anxiety

In the coming year, there will be days when I go home and cry. There will be days when I suppress the tears because I have another job to get to, and all work demands professionalism. Perhaps this is the year the stress exacts its ultimate toll and I burn out. Maybe I will join the legion of former teachers who’ve gone on to second careers, where their schedules are not dominated by Septembers and school holidays. But I hope not.

I’m luckier than a lot of others. The camaraderie at my job is real, and I have a boss who hits the ground running harder than anyone. I’m not paying for supplies out of my own pocket. And for now, the anticipation outweighs the anxiety.

The joy

There are benefits to teaching special education, too. So much of my particular branch in this field is represented as a challenge, with very little mention of the rewards. Special education means smaller class sizes, which equals more creative freedom and a stronger teacher-student bond. It means I have the same kids year after year, seeing the results of our combined hard work come to fruition when they master skills that have been years in the making. It means that September will not be an awkward introduction but a joyful reunion, because there is joy. Joy in a child handing me a card with a messy scrawl on my birthday, or in a kid laughing at my well-worn jokes because they’re fresh and hilarious to her. Joy because the purpose of my professional life is right in front of me, breathing, growing, and living. I can’t think of another profession that offers such immediacy, and I’m grateful to have this one.

Despite the anxiety, the stress, and all the unforeseen ways this coming year will not live up to my ideals, I’m really looking forward to September.

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