Let’s be honest about the struggle — with our colleagues and with our students

Last week, I was talking with a friend who started a new teaching job this year.

I was reminiscing on my first few years in the classroom — mostly the frustrations, tears, and rough days — and she seemed surprised. She said, “It seemed like you’ve always known what you were doing.”

Nope.

Our conversation reminded me how important it is to share our struggles with new teachers — or teachers who are new to our schools — so they know they’re not alone. And that yes, it does get easier.

In 1996, just two years into my now 25-year teaching career, I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Wichita Eagle newspaper expressing a few of my many frustrations. That year, the Wichita superintendent had openly criticized the district’s teachers (and I was one) for not doing enough to reach struggling kids.

He basically said: You need to do better, or you need to find a new job.

Here’s an excerpt from my response (which I saved all these years):

What I want to know is: How?

No one seems to be talking about this. And I’m not talking about smaller class sizes, bigger budgets, more computers or whatever. I’m talking about bigger issues, like motivation, incentives and teacher-student relationships.

How, exactly, can a teacher get past a child’s distrust, resentment and cynicism toward life and learning and get that child to read, study, learn, bond with the teacher and work toward long-term goals like a successful career?

How can we get kids who are inundated with a live-for-today message from the mass media to think about tomorrow? How can we change our middle schools and high schools, in particular, from places where dates are made and gossip is spread to places where kids take learning seriously?

Like most teachers, I’ve thought this through hundreds of times as I’ve lain awake in bed late at night. I’ve struggled to find the right thing to say at the right moment to get an angry, disillusioned child to pick up the book in front of him and actually read it. I have failed. We have all failed, but not because we wanted to or because we didn’t care.

Our society is asking the impossible of its public school teachers. It is asking them to stand alone in a world where society the media, parents and peers are telling children to go one way — and single-handedly direct them the opposite way.

The teachers want to do it. But someone has to show them how. You can’t just browbeat them; you have to teach them. You have to give teachers the tools to be successful, the same way they have to give those tools to our children.

And that, superintendent is your job.

So yes, I was frustrated. And that was before social media and cell phones. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to be a new teacher today.

After that Op-Ed was published, I read it aloud to my 8th graders. The reaction was amazing.

First, they asked me: Did you write that?

And then, they said: We didn’t know you felt that way.

My students genuinely had no idea that they were keeping me up at night, causing me frustration, making me feel like a failure. They didn’t realize I cared that much, and they were surprised. They actually liked me, it turned out, and they didn’t want me to feel bad.

It was a turning point in our relationship. Everything wasn’t glossy and perfect after that — they were 8th graders, after all. But it was better because I let them see me as a person, and I helped them understand why getting them to work was so important to me.

Teaching gets easier, and a big reason is that we grow in confidence, and confidence lets us share vulnerability and build real relationships. But every year, we have to do that hard work again.

I’m glad I’m not a new teacher this year, but I hope these words will help someone who is.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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