At the end of last school year, I had a student hovering over my desk. She noticed the new feature of my desk: The Golden C. The Golden C is an award that is passed from one teacher to another as an appreciation for the work that we do. The student asked: ‘What’s that?” I responded in the same quippy way that I always do: “It’s an award for me being awesome.” She responded jokingly: “That’s your problem Mr. Tutolo. You think everything’s about you. You will be better off when you realize that everything’s about me.” Although I doubt she meant it to be anything more than a joke, she was right. It’s not about us. The work that we do is about her and every other student that walks into our classrooms.
Another reminder of why we do the work that we do came while reconnecting with my team to start another school year. During an informal meeting, one of those great moments happened— a moment that can only be brought about organically. Our team was talking about some of the concerns that we had for the upcoming year and then it happened— our new colleague asked the question: “Why do you keep coming back to teaching?” From one teacher to another, we shared what kept us coming back in spite of our frustrations. Each of us shared and a common theme emerged. We aren’t coming back for us but something far greater: our students.
As the year progresses and the water that was once only at our ankles seems to be covering our eyeballs, it can be easy to lose sight of why we teach in the first place. Although it isn’t always easy, it is important that we check in with ourselves and remember what keeps us coming back each day. Many of us will acknowledge that when you feel passionately about something, barriers to fulfilling your vision bring about feelings of frustration. We must be able to look past our frustrations and embrace the positives. Should we not find positivity then we risk languishing in defeat and will no longer be able to be of service to our students. I count myself fortunate to work on a team of extremely passionate teachers who will do the work necessary to honor the needs and support the learning of our students. It is a team of educators who will stop at nothing to ensure that we are creating systems that support the academic and more importantly the social and emotional well-being of every child that we set out to teach.
There is a common truth that is shared by the most transformational teachers. Whether it be the work done lesson planning, the time spent in the classroom teaching, the meetings between teachers and administrators, the challenging of the status quo, or the many other things that go into their jobs as teachers they keep one central focus in mind— the students. Teachers spend countless hours beyond the school day while completing tasks that are not even in their job description. They spend money from their already meager paychecks. They walk in with courage and allow their emotional vulnerabilities to lay on the line. They embrace each day with a smile on their face and a positive presence regardless of what woes they are facing in their personal life. But still they find the time and energy to check in with themselves at the start and end of each day to ensure they are honoring the students that they set out to serve. It is a truth that should be implicit in the work that we do: we teach to be in service to our learners. The energy that I derive in the classroom is from my students. Their energy becomes my energy. Having the students come to the table of their own learning and realize their brilliance is why I wake up and come to school each day.
Those who are not teachers likely will not be able to fully understand the intersecting of the mental and physical exhaustion that is felt at end of most every working day— the exhaustion that comes with laying everything that you have on the line to be in service to our learners. When the school day is over you may be able to leave the building, but the work is far from over. In fact, there is rarely a night where everything is caught up and there is no more work to be done. Physically and mentally exhausted you get home to put the finishing touches on the lesson plan for the next day, grade the stack of papers that grows like bacteria, send emails to parents anxiously awaiting a response, or go to the to-do list which never seems to read ‘take a break.’
When I begin explaining my job to my non-teacher friends or family members, they seem to look on with disbelief as if I have some reason to be telling a tall tale. The look of disbelief always turns to a statement: “I could never do that.” The statement is almost always followed by the question: “How/ Why do you do it?”
Why does any passionate teacher do they work that we do? We don’t do it for the money and surely not the fame. It isn’t for the power and there isn’t much glory. We do it for them— the students. They’re the ones we’re trying to reach in order to bring opportunity where sometimes there is not, excitement for learning when it was thought to be lost, empathy for people in a tough world, and more than can be formally taught. One of the greatest things about the most inspiring teachers— they never once ask: “What’s in it for me?” Because the work that we do is not for us, it’s for them.