It’s two weeks into a new school year, and everyone is adjusting. A former student passes my door, stops and, flashing her metal-filled smile, says, “Mrs. Cartier, how are you? I miss your class already. I’m kind of nervous about AP Lang.” I take in her pony-tailed red hair, her thin runner’s build complete with long legs and knobby knees and promise her that I am available to help her if she has problems. The minute-bell rings, and she mumbles something about having to get to class. I watch as her navy backpack disappears down the hall, and I think, “I’m not ready to give her up.” Just then I realize that my room is filling up with new faces. Teens crunching Flaming Cheetos and unwrapping chocolate-frosted Pop Tarts file in complaining about schedules or commenting on the shock of bleached hair shooting from the top of one student’s head. The bell signals the beginning of class, and I am on.
I have to admit, not everything about school thrills me. Before students even arrive, we teachers are starting to check off items on an ever-growing to-do list: complete Absence Management Training, refresh training about Smarter Adults-Safer Children, turn in course syllabi, submit Professional Development Plan and the first four elements of a Unit of Instruction for approval, confirm insurance benefit plan, create a template for department collaboration time, fill out the first month of lessons on Google Calendar, update class website, and create new classes on Google Classroom. The back-to-school blog posts and twitter tips were so much more positive and motivating than the reality of actually being back in school.
Add to that all the books and articles that I read over the summer about service learning and global projects, about whether teachers should give zeros, whether we should give homework, about student choice and student voice. My head is swimming. I wonder if I can do this job. I try to focus. I remember an exercise that Daniel H. Pink outlined in his book about motivation entitled Drive. I read the book because motivating my students is an ongoing problem, but I was the one who needed motivating! The exercise that came to mind asked the reader to assess whether the work he does still motivates him by asking these questions: “What gets you up in the morning?” and “What keeps you up at night?”
I didn’t have to think long; I immediately knew the answer to both questions – my students. What keeps teachers going despite all of our insecurities and extraneous duties is the faces of our students. They are our purpose and our reward.
Snapping back from my reverie, I realize that all eyes are on me; I look around. Trevor, with ear buds draped around his ears for quick access, stares at me with round, brown eyes. Elma, face framed by a powder blue hijab, lowers her eyes to escape contact with mine. Stephen nervously twists the bangs of his straight brown hair until I ask the class to open their writer’s notebooks to a new page. I know that before long these kids will become mine, and I won’t want to give them up either.