Today is my last day as a middle school teacher. I taught 7th/8th grade English for the last two years, and it was one of the most incredible, exhausting and rewarding experiences of my life.
Truthfully, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I wasn’t bad– it’s just that two years is a mere blink of an eye in this world. Most educators say that the middle of your third year is when you finally start to hit your stride– to anticipate mistakes and to make the right adjustments. It’s laughable that I’m even writing about the profession, as if my short time gave me enough insight to consider myself an expert. Still, I did keep my eyes and ears open, and there are a few things I want you to know about your teachers as you move through school.
1. They care.
This one might seem obvious- but what about the teachers who seem like they don’t even like kids? They care too. In fact, they care so much sometimes that what seems like resentment for students is actually a resentment of their own inability to be an effective educator. My worst moments as a teacher came out of a frustration that I was underprepared when presented with a challenge… and sometimes that came out on the kids. Your teachers just want you to have the skills that will help you thrive, and when they don’t know the best way to give you those skills, it can show up in the classroom as a short fuse. Just know they want the best for you.
2. They can crush you.
There’s a million little laws you can violate while driving down a surface street in a straight line. If traffic cops want to pull you over and give you a ticket, they can. Teachers are like traffic cops. Teachers know all the rules, including a plethora of little dress code and classroom conduct policies that you’d never even think to remember. Teachers possess the power nitpick the work you turn in until it drips red ink. You’re too young to drive, but there’s this incredible sense of relief when a policeman who’s been driving behind you for a short distance speeds up to pass you or pulls off the road– even if you swore up and down you didn’t do anything wrong, it still feels like you got away with something. That’s the same relief you should feel every time you DON’T get reprimanded inside or outside the classroom. You were probably doing at least two things you know you shouldn’t, and another 12-15 that you weren’t aware were against the rules.
3. They hate homework more than you do.
Students complaining about homework is the one constant in a job that provides a surprise every minute. If homework wasn’t a valuable part of the educational process, there’s no way in hell teachers would ever give it. As an English teacher, I had to scour every sentence of every assignment handed in to ensure it was complete, coherent, and on topic. It took me a long time. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has been a common companion over the last 22 months.
4. They CAN do.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” That old mantra couldn’t be further from the truth.
I work with a New York Times Best Selling author. A colleague left last year to attend UCLA law school. Teachers aren’t any less intelligent or ambitious than anyone else; they just make a choice to invest their abilities in your potential. Some sacrifice ambitions completely to focus all of their attention on being an educator. That’s an honorable sacrifice. Please don’t make the cynical assumption that a career in education was the fallback of the talentless or lazy.
5. They have dirty minds.
This one is your fault. When you can’t stop giggling for 45 minutes just because a story starts on page 69, or when you use words that force your teacher to make multiple daily trips to UrbanDictionary.com, you sort of force them to think on your level. Teachers are trained to recognize and help students stay away from potentially risque scenarios as well, so our dirty minds have us assuming the worst at every turn.
6. They have favorites.
Teachers have favorites. It’s not always who you think– you know, the “teacher’s pet” types. Often it’s the ones who are less academically gifted, or the ones who face tons of adversity at home (and still find a way to drag themselves to school every day) that capture a special place in a teacher’s heart. It doesn’t mean that they award special attention or leeway to those students. Often it means that teachers are actually tougher on those kids because they know that an extra push is needed to keep those students motivated.
7. They’re broke.
Everyone knows that teaching jobs don’t pay much. What people don’t often realize is that school exists to fundraise as much as it exists to educate. Not one week went by in the last two years without a student, administrator or fellow staff member approaching me for some type of donation. I’d estimate that teachers probably put 10% of their income, at least, back into the system in some way. Do your teachers a favor and hit one extra home in the neighborhood with your cookie dough sales pitch instead of the adult who has a starting salary an average of 25% less than a first year manager at McDonalds.
8. They aren’t who you think they are.
Just like when I look at you kids and can’t envision what you’ll be like as adults, you all have blinders on to the fact that your teachers are anything more than just teachers. At our school, we have a teacher with a reputation for being unrelentingly strict. This teacher spends their time between classes pranking the other members of the staff. It’s always hilarious to see a student’s face contort when they try to reconcile that I listen to rap, have a Twitter account, or that I don’t spend all of my time reading short fiction and telling people to make sure they have a No. 2 pencil.
9. They laugh at your mistakes.
This sounds worse than it is. Without your mistakes, whether they come by accident, ignorance, or laziness, they can’t know what it is you still need to learn (or practice). Mistakes are good… and sometimes they’re REALLY good… like knee-slapping good. A few months ago I asked a girl to use “pretense” in a sentence. Her response was “She pretense she can’t hear me talking to her, but I know she can.” I cried. Something like that happens every day. It’s cathartic.
10. They don’t yell.
Kids have no idea what yelling means. Being told to put your cell phone away is not “getting yelled at.” I appreciate hyperbole MORE THAN ANYONE THAT EVER EXISTED, but if a stern talking to is “yelling,” I’d hate to see what you all would call actually getting shouted down by a teacher. I had a teacher yell at me once. It was in second grade. In the middle of the night I can still hear faint echoes of “SHUT UP RALPH. JUST, FOR ONCE, SHUT UUUUUUPPPPP!!!!!!!”
I deserved it.
Remember above all else that your teachers are just people. They want to do what’s best for you, but sometimes their good intentions get lost in the maze of shifting standards, administrative demands and skeptical parents. If you boys are anything like me, you’ll test your teacher’s patience one minute, and then give them a reason to feel encouraged the next. Through all of that, my hope is that you never leave those charged with the responsibility of shepherding you through the public education system feeling unappreciated.
Ralph Amsden is one of five dads who regularly post letters to their kids on this site about life, love and the absurd. He is a (former) teacher and a high school sports reporter. He lives in sunny Arizona with his wife and three sons.