When Teaching Makes You Cry

when-teaching-makes-you-cryWhen Teaching Makes You Cry

by Terry Heick

Jackie Gerstein shared a video on facebook recently–the very kind of thing I usually scroll right past because I’m obtuse and abrasive and feel shame whenever I’m on facebook anyway. But it was Jackie, so I clicked and watched it, and was moved by what I saw.

After spending the vast majority of my time and energy helping rethinking learning, it was stunning to see a teacher that could simplify things to their most human and elemental and beautiful form: The interaction between people that need one another.

There is something about teaching that makes you cry, and so having taught for several years at different grade levels across different districts, I’ve cried more than once. It’s not always for the same reason, either. Joy. A sense of being overwhelmed. Breakthroughs. Failures. There’s a lot going on in any moment in a classroom–altering-the-arc-of-one’s-life-type stuff.

My most recent cry was about 18 months ago (I’m overdue). I was talking to a district administrator who wanted to see “more detail” in my lessons plans. This was part of an ongoing conversation that we’d been having for months. The administrator wanted to a level of “planning” that I was unable to provide, and I kept pushing and trying and revising and resubmitting and trying again, and I was getting nowhere, and she (the admin) wasn’t letting up. In fact, she was pushing harder.

I take tremendous pride in what I do, and am harder on myself than anyone critiquing me could ever be. I’m fiercely competitive, not so much with others, but with what’s possible–the gap between what we’re doing and what we could be doing.

What Gap Between What I Was Asked To Do & What I Was Able To Do

The district I was working for had a prodigious–and vigorously-referenced–set of “non-negotiables.” This list of items and processes made it very clear what was expected of every teacher on a moment-by-moment basis, and what could be requested on-demand for the teacher to “prove.” I understood this on a rational level–every profession has a job description with clearly delineated set of responsibilities. But my word–what had I gotten myself into? I wondered. This wasn’t teaching, and had little to do with learning.

The tone of it all was soul-crushing. The implications of the “expectations” and “non-negotiables” were dizzying. The assumption is that you’re delinquent; prove you’re not.

Not demonstrate effective pedagogy.

Not prove students understand.

Not emphasize select and relevant student growth.

Instead, it was spend an extraordinary amount of time proving that you’re preparing the way we want you to, and don’t complain because all teachers have to do it, and team players don’t complain about what is expected of the team because that’s selfish.

So I tried. The administrator wanted my lessons every Friday by 3 o’clock for the week after next. She’d respond to my lessons within 48 hours, and wanted a follow-up response for each of her requests by Sunday evening.

If I created a warm-up that included a journal prompt, it was requested that I provide anticipated responses for the prompts. If I provided three prompts, I’d need to provide anticipated responses for all three prompts. Same with any kind of Accountable Talk student questioning. How might the students respond to this question or that? Why? What would I say back? What might they say back?

“Here, it says you’re using inquiry-based learning in groups of four, with tiered reading and writing assignments to provide checkpoint “snapshots” of understanding. That’s Monday. And then Friday, it says you plan on using an exit slip as assessment? So I need that exit slip checked for rigor and okay’d, and I need to know exactly what that exit slip will be assessing (standard placed on existing curriculum map). I also need to know what kind of responses you might expect, and how you might respond to those range of responses.

“I also need to see (approved) research to support your choice to use inquiry, Reciprocal Teaching, and blended learning. And please email me and your principal and your team leader the research so they can okay it.”

Same with learning targets, PLC work, data team work, committee artifacts, walkthrough documents, literacy probes, assessment data, IEP data, usernames, passwords, etc., etc., etc.–all with the implication that I’m not doing it, and that my choices are problematic, and that I must prove otherwise.

In a short time, teaching had become a matter of expectation, compliance, and proof, and was so stressful I began to dread Sunday nights. I had come to feel completely disconnected from my craft, and realized I was not capable of fulfilling what was expected of me.

And that is an awful feeling. To not feel good enough is not something I was accustomed to feeling. I went from Department Chair and Literacy Committee Chair and Literacy Plan Author to insufficient. As a person, I no longer recognized the joy and curiosity and inquiry and thought and self-knowledge and utility and affection of teaching and learning, and that wasn’t because I was “stressed,” it was because, in lieu of all of the training in pedagogy, and all of the passion I had for my students, when I pushed with everything I had, nothing budged.

I felt lost, and this is what, in that meeting with that administrator that sunny October afternoon, made me cry.

The other end of the when teaching makes you cry? Something beautiful? There’s this.