It’s 3 am and I shouldn’t be awake but I am. My body is hotter than it should be with the fan on full blast and my mind is already in the classroom. Teaching anxiety. I can’t pinpoint when it began, but it grabbed ahold of me not long after starting this career.
I’m into my second year now and while its gotten better I still associate my job with acute inner turmoil: I feel anxious, under qualified, underappreciated and unsupported. And now, as I’m am in the process of figuring out what’s next, I want to pull apart those feelings and see if they house anything real.
If you care at all about what you do, some degree of anxiety is unavoidable and can even be healthy at times. I think it comes from knowing that you’re responsible for something important and having a fear of screwing it up. The fear part is what makes it dangerous. If left unchecked, it can gnaw at your heart into the wee hours of the night and leave you with sleep deprivation and a lack of confidence.
I think I’ve tamed my anxiety a bit, mostly because I’ve been able to dismiss my fears. But the teaching fears were harsh: I was afraid of what my principal thought of my performance, I was afraid I wasn’t teaching my students anything, I was afraid because I knew I couldn’t measure up to the skills of master teachers, I was afraid that the parents would realize that I was clueless and revolt.
When you start teaching, you realize that you are working with a bunch of humans who are all very different and the permutations of their unique needs and abilities can be both infinite and opaque. Here is where “under qualified” comes into play. I have my masters in elementary education but in my actual practice of teaching, I have tasted just how far I really am from mastery. I don’t know how to remove the scars of sexual abuse in order to pull a fourth grader up past a second grade reading level, I don’t know how to give a kid who sleeps in a chair at home the rest he needs to be able to focus, I don’t know how to get a classroom full of Spanish speakers living in Mexico to start speaking English.
And then, the big picture, societal piece of teaching is that teachers have become the whipping boys of our crumbling education system. Since there has been public education, teachers have been second class citizens (e.g. the rule from 1915 that banned us from loitering in any downtown ice cream shops. Really, the nerve!). These days, people feel so entitled to free education that they feel it should meet their every need. Teachers are expected to be parents, counselors, psychologists, and tutors. My first year of teaching, I made less than your average McDonald’s store manager, but at least didn’t come home smelling like french fries.
Despite all of this, there is some small part of me that is still considering coming back for more. Maybe it’s that weird psychological phenomenon where the more you sacrifice for something the more value it holds for you. Certainly it’s my students and the unbreakable bond that develops after spending one hundred and eighty days trapped in the same room together for eight hours straight. And even when you spend day after day wondering if your students are really learning, all it takes is that one student to surprise you and suddenly read a whole paragraph in English, or the kid with ADHD and writer’s block to come out with a beautiful story, or the fourth graders who can suddenly do long division, or the heartfelt hug from a seven year old after you’ve missed two days of work to make it all seem worthwhile.
I don’t know. Teaching is a strange kind of drug. I’m not sure what road to take: keep on taking it, even if I suspect that its bad for my heath, or sign myself up for the nearest rehab program.