From My Side of the Desk

On August 20, 1982, I began my teaching career in a small, rural school district in southern Missouri.  I was 22 years old.  Shorter than almost all of my students and only four years older than some of them, I made up for any deficiencies in size and age-inspired wisdom with sheer determination, infinite stubbornness and major attitude (some might call it meanness).  I was THE TEACHER; I would impart upon my students everything they needed to know about grammar and spelling and literature and composition, they would absorb it all with heart-felt appreciation, and all would be right in my world. I was so naive. I was also incredibly frustrated in those early years.  I felt I was giving my “job” everything I had–every tidbit of my knowledge and every ounce of my energy–and yet so many of my seventh graders could not grasp the difference between an adjective and an adverb or understand that “She don’t” and “I ain’t got no” were grammatically incorrect.  And, oh, my juniors and seniors–many of them could not construct compound-complex sentences, write an effective thesis statement, recognize iambic pentameter or appreciate Shakespearean innuendos.  How was that possible–and what was I doing wrong? It took much longer than it should have for me to realize that if I really wanted my students to learn, then I needed to stop trying to teach English–and start trying to teach students.  I needed to stop caring so much about curriculum and start caring more about kids.  And when I was finally able to understand the differences in these two approaches and incorporate those differences into my classroom, my teaching–and my life–improved in ways previously unimaginable. I now have 29 career years behind me–17 in the classroom and 12 in an administrative office (7 of those years as a junior high principal)–and during those combined years I still have made more mistakes than I care to admit–and, I’m sure, more mistakes than I even realize.  Some students I have failed miserably–not because I haven’t attempted to teach them or haven’t treated them fairly but because, quite simply, I haven’t gotten to know them.  Students have walked through my door and back out again without my ever having learned their stories–and that is my greatest regret.  I have been annoyed by students who wouldn’t do their assignments, who didn’t work up to their potential, who intentionally disrupted my class or disregarded my instructions–and I have voiced those frustrations in the teachers’ lounge to numerous heads nodding in agreement.  Sometimes it has been years later before I have learned of abusive stepfathers, alcoholic mothers, imprisoned parents, or dying grandparents.  I have learned too late of students who didn’t do their homework because their nights were spent caring for younger siblings, students whose only meals were the ones the school provided, or students who misbehaved in class because the attention they got from me was better than no attention at all. I should have known sooner.  I might not have been able to change the underlying problems that plagued them, but at least I could have been more understanding, more encouraging, and more willing to help those students achieve success despite their difficulties. I can only hope that my successes over the years have been more numerous than my failures and that I have influenced at least a few students to be not just better writers and readers and thinkers but also better persons.  I think maybe I have. One of the few things I do know for certain is that no other profession could have given me the joy and satisfaction (and sometimes the heartache) that teaching has provided.  I have laughed until mascara-streaked tears have mottled my makeup and giggles have spiraled into hiccups.  I have beamed with pride over students who have grasped a difficult concept in the classroom, who have made a game-winning shot on the court, who have earned scholarships to attend college, who have landed their first job.  I have smiled through my tears at 29 graduations and countless weddings–and I have wept in gut-wrenching pain at too many hospital bedsides and too, too many funerals.  And every student–every one of them–is still carried in my heart. I have loved them all, and I love them still.  And as many of them have matured into adults with families and careers of their own, they have become not just former students but also current friends–and their friendship has been the greatest gift any teacher could ever hope for. But today isn’t about those former students.  Today is the first day of a new school year, and today is about all those young students entering my building for the first time.  It’s a special day for them; all of them will be excited and nervous, but some of them will also be scared, some of them will get lost, and some of them will be fighting back tears of frustration.  My job today will be to point them in the direction of their next class, to demonstrate to them how to work the combination on their locker, and to show them where their bus is parked–to calm their fears and convince them that junior high isn’t such a scary place after all. What they won’t realize is that it’s a special day for me, too, and I will be just as excited and nervous and scared as they are (and probably fighting back a few tears of my own)–for today is the first day of my last year as an educator.  I have every intention of making this my best year yet because at the end of this, my thirtieth year, I will be taking my nameplate off the door, packing up thirty years’ worth of accumulated “stuff,” and moving on to the next stage in my life.  I don’t know what that next stage will entail, but I’m hoping it includes an abundance of reading, writing, traveling and living (with an occasional bit of napping thrown in for good measure). And another thing I know for certain is that if the second stage of my life is even half as wonderful as the first, it’s going to be spectacular.

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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24 Responses to From My Side of the Desk

  1. Miles Long says:

    Excellent. Thank you for dedicating so many years. Thanks for being my teacher so many years ago!

    • Thank you, Miles, and you’re welcome! I have been blessed in countless ways, and chief among those blessings has been the opportunity to become friends with so many of my former students–and I’m so glad that I can count you among those friends.

  2. Miranda Stout Donley says:

    This is just what I needed to hear as I complete my first week back in the classroom full-time. Your career is such an inspiration. Thanks for something super to read as I drink my coffee before heading to school!

  3. Jana Dobson says:

    As a former student, I just want to let you know that some of it did indeed soak in. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Failure is not an option – it is a realtity « Verbum Sapienti

  5. Sue says:

    Karen, I read this blog today with emotional tears streaming. You have made such an important contribution to my kids’ life and and ultimately their love of books and especially their love of teaching. There are many many parents out there who feel the same way.
    You’ve come a long way from that first summer playing backgammon at the beach and secretly taking swimming lessons in Mtn Home! You’ve earned your right to be happy & proud! Thank you.

  6. Zac Eubank says:

    Good one Mama. I can honestly say, though, I am glad you had moved onto administration before my Junior and Senior year. It would have probably had an impact on our relationship. I may have never grasped grammar or the English language at all, but you taught me how to have a voice (albeit a voice that never stops) and to construct my ideas confidently. I am excited for you to start the next chapter of your life and to continue to watch you grow as an artist. Just as I am sure you feel proud with our accomplishments and your influence on us, it has been pretty neat to watch Sam, Lucas, and myself influence you and your creative courage.

    • And you still know how to make your mother cry! What sweet words, oldest child of mine. I entered into administration when I did in part because of our relationship–I don’t think having you in my class would have been a good experience for either one of us! I’m glad, though, that I was still able to influence you and encourage you to pursue your creative endeavors, and you’re right–seeing my three boys following their dreams and succeeding has given me the courage to do a little water-testing myself. Thank you.

  7. Oh my goodness! All I could say, paragraph after paragraph, is Amen, Amen, Amen!!! and get teary-eyed as I read it. I have been through the exact same discoveries as you and have seen the amazing joys of teaching *students.* What the kids (and teachers) deal with in Ozark County are the *exact* same things in inner city Dallas. Yet, this weekend I attended two college graduations–Master’s in Education and Bachelor’s in Sociology. Those moments are priceless. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m sure the fact that you taught students instead of curriculum was absorbed by me and helped contribute to why I believe in doing the same. Thank you!

    • Janet, you sweet, beautiful lady–thank you so much! I’m honored that I might have played even a small part in the development of the amazing woman and teacher you have become. And it really is funny, isn’t it, that students and teachers everywhere face the same challenges and fight the same battles–and the best way to rise above those challenges and win those battles is through love and nurturing and laughter. You get it! Your students are very fortunate.

  8. Janet Taber says:

    No question AT ALL about your successes….just wish all teachers had your wisdom and ability.

    • Thank you, Janet! I felt fortunate to have all three of your children in my classes. It took me a while to develop that “wisdom and ability”–hopefully every teacher has the same opportunity for such growth–and the desire to grasp it.

  9. nelizadrew says:

    30 years. Wow. *shudders*

    • “The years skip along easily; it’s the days that are tough.” It seems like only yesterday … (and there are very few professions that allow full retirement benefits after “only” 30 years!).

  10. What Janet said, Iced Tea! It is so obvious from your sincere words and compassion, and from the comments from students and their parents. The comment from your son got me choked up! So beautiful! I wish you all the best this year!

    • Thank you so much, AA! I tried not to get too mushy with this post (saving that for the end-of-the-year one!), and yet the comments following it have been so touching–and I have gotten a little choked up myself. It will be a fantastic year because I refuse to have it any other way (I’m pretty stubborn like that). Thanks again!

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  12. bronxboy55 says:

    My daughter is just getting started in her teaching career. I’m going to send her the link to this post, and I have no doubt she will be inspired. Every student should have at least one teacher like you, and every teacher should have at least one role model like you. Congratulations.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always “that” teacher, but you’re right–I hope every student has at least one. I am flattered that you would share my words with your daughter, and I hope she has the most amazing, most rewarding career ahead of her.

  13. emjayandthem says:

    This was wonderful and I’m so glad you shared it with us. Congrats on the start of your last year … but I can only imagine how much you’ll be missed.

    Cheers! MJ

    • Thank you, MJ! And here’s a little secret–despite how much I’m looking forward to the next big adventure (whatever it turns out to be), I’m going to miss this life, too! It has been a very fulfilling, rewarding one.

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