The Teacher in Me

“I am a teacher.” It has rolled off my tongue a million times over, and in many ways, it defines me – at least in part. As a little girl, I taught my stuffed animals. For Christmas, while other kids wished for bikes and dolls, my list always had some kind of teacher goody at the top! One year I was so excited to receive my very own chalkboard. Another year I got a red typewriter that actually worked! I played the role of teacher until somehow, miraculously, it became real. I will never forget walking across the stage at Baylor and then into that room at Smithfield Elementary School in Birdville ISD. Jolene Armstrong handed me the keys and gave me a shot at what I consider to be the greatest of all professions – teaching. It’s been twenty-eight years now.

I am a teacher. It runs in my blood, I suppose. Both of my parents are teachers. They taught high school and college and both had lengthy careers in education, and there are many other teachers in my family, including my great grandfather who taught in Oklahoma territory before it was a state.

“We see the stress in their eyes. We get it. This roller coaster ride has us all a bit up and down.”

This pandemic has led teachers to new ways of doing things. We don’t meet in classrooms now, but in little grids on our computer screens. We see their faces and don’t really know what to say, and yet we say something. We have to. We are the teachers. We peek into their worlds in a way we haven’t before. We hear baby brother crying in the background. We see the stress in their eyes. We get it. This roller coaster ride has us all a bit up and down. The kids talked about school at first. They talked about “when” we return. Now they say “if.” They laughed at first. Now they are more solemn. At first I asked them what they’d been up to. Now that question leaves us all a bit … silent. There isn’t a lot to say, for life as they knew it, life as we all knew it has slowed down, paused, okay – stopped. So we make things to talk about. We tell them to wear crazy hats or school colors or bring show and tell. We let them do magic tricks and hold up their lazy cats. We ooh and ahh over an Indian Head penny or shriek (to their delight) at a huge, plastic lizard. They hold up their treasures. They show them to a screen. And we respond. We value their stuff, and in doing so, we value them.

The teacher in me wants to get back to the classroom – back to the stink of fourth grade right after recess in the springtime, back to kids not turning their work in (oh yeah, they don’t turn it in online either!), back to school cafeteria mashed potatoes, back to the countdown to Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, and summer. I’d like to think I would not even count the days away now … or maybe I would. But normal would feel so good.

The teacher in me wants to bring a novel to life, just once more this school year, in such a way that we all forget to watch the clock and find ourselves apologizing for being late to our next class. I want to sit in the spot where I conference with my writers, listen to their words, hear their hearts spilled out on paper, and oh so gently guide them to spill them out with a bit more structure, or pizzazz, or with a few more commas and apostrophes.

Instead, I find myself in a very peculiar spot. I find myself learning. I watch them tackle this online thing and message one another on my Google Classroom stream. I watch my own daughter who is nearly five. She’s adjusted to all this time at home. Her Buzz Lightyear doll has become a constant companion, a brother of sorts. He does whatever she does. He even wears her shirts and shorts. She runs the bases in the backyard the way only children do these days – alone. She doesn’t let it stop her from hitting that ball as hard and far as she can. She plays every position at once. And she begs me to “be the coach.” I oblige; after all, I am a teacher. I call out exercises for her warm-up and then tell her what to do during the “game.”

I watch them, these children of the great American shutdown, and I see it in them – resilience. They will bounce back from this. It will be a memory soon. At least we pray. You can shut down the malls and the stores and even the schools, but you cannot shut down the human spirit. It is a strong thing. It comes back fighting. It must be about its essential business – the essential business of life.

The teacher in me pauses, takes a deep breath, and attempts to do what I have done for almost three decades in the classroom. How many times have I veered left or right in a lesson in order to tackle it – the moment, the exact time and place that a kid “gets it,” and his teacher is granted that deep satisfaction of knowing that he will never lack that little bit of understanding again. In these unprecedented days, I will choose the teachable moment – only this time … I am the one being taught.

What will tomorrow bring? More of the juggling act, trying to find the balance between my roles of mom and educator. I teeter between acceptance of and frustration towards our situation hour by hour, sometimes moment by moment, but always six feet away … This is not normal. No one can pretend it is. But it is okay to not be normal for a while. It is a time for learning, a time for reassessing what is really important, and as teachers, perhaps when normal comes back around we need to let them show us their Indian Head pennies and plastic lizards a bit more often. Maybe, in the end, that is the stuff that really matters – even more than the apostrophes.