I walk to my car and try my best to avert my eyes to the full school parking lot. It doesn’t matter that it’s an impossibly perfect July day or that I already put some hours into my classroom; there is always work to be done, and always someone working harder. I swallow all those familiar feelings that the “old me” would have translated as failure and selfishness. I reassure myself it’s okay that I can’t organize my classroom right now, because I have an important and non-negotiable appointment to go to. Even if it is just meeting a friend for an early dinner downtown. 

I’ve never met a teacher that works their contracted hours. As educators, we weigh our dedication in martyrdom. The best teachers are the ones who stay up the latest, spend the most of their personal money and devote the most hours of their vacation time. If you really love your job, you will sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. 

My first year of teaching, I was a good teacher. I practically held up my hand and recited, “I solemnly swear to forfeit my entire identity and personal life and any second of freetime.”

Yes, a good teacher. I lost just under 20 pounds from stress. I wore dark circles under my eyes like badges of honor. I answered emails sent to me at 10 o’clock at night, and drove my 45-minute commute to the school on Saturdays and Sundays. I showed up for work at 6:30 AM and left at 6:30 PM- which means that all throughout the winter, there was a heavy chance I was only getting around 20 minutes of true daylight a day (when we went outside for recess). I never drank water and normalized low blood sugar and feeling dizzy every time I stood up. I lost touch with friends and family. I ignored all my hobbies. 

Early on, a seasoned coworker saw these “good teacher” habits forming, and warned me: “you may be getting an ‘A’ at school, but just make sure you’re not getting an ‘F’ in life.” 

I was very clearly getting an ‘F’ in life- that much was visible to everyone. But you want to know what the craziest thing was? I wasn’t doing that hot in school, either. Even though I was sincerely pouring myself into my work, giving everything I had, I still felt constantly behind. I would drive home with my stomach in knots, and an overwhelming feeling of guilt and imposter syndrome. I was in a state of constant anxiety. I called my parents and cried a minimum of three times a week. There wasn’t a single day that I didn’t question if I was cut out for this. 

If you looked up “resentment,” you could have found a headshot of me. In addition to a lack of nutrition and sleep and just plain ole self love, I was also very short on patience and good humor. I had hopeful visions of embodying Miss Honey from Matilda- and instead, I achieved more of Miss Trunchbull. 

My second year of teaching, I knew something had to change. My physical and mental health had plummeted. My face had aged. People expressed their worry. My cup was beyond empty. So, in a true Dark Night Of the Soul- I made the decision to be a bad teacher. 

I accepted that if I continued to lose myself, I couldn’t do even another year in this career. I started coming to school at 7:20. I stopped comparing myself to my coworkers (who still, to this day, seem superhuman to me). I didn’t strive for perfection. I set boundaries. I said yes. I met and fell in love with Ryan. I ran a half-marathon. I took a personal day and went to a wedding. I made doctor appointments even if I had to use half of a sick day. I hiked a 4 thousand foot mountain. A couple times. I enrolled in a class about hormone health and PCOS. I read fiction books just for fun. I cooked real meals with real food and used an oven. I answered my friend’s phone calls. 

Like magic, I actually became the teacher I wanted to be. I was relaxed. I laughed at the spilled juice boxes and plans gone awry. As a class, we made a beautiful community of flexibility and creativity and fun. We didn’t always get the craft done on time, and my team definitely jokes that I’m the disorganized one of the group, but I can genuinely say that I am meant for my job and that I am happy to come to work every single day. I received the sweetest emails from parents. I had new, fresh ideas. I made my kids laugh. 

I love being a teacher, but that’s not the only thing that I am. I’m a girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, hiker, climber, writer, gardener, bartender, dancer. The list goes on for all the hats that we wear. 

I am in awe of the people I work with- their tenacity and talents. Their organization and involvement. And although I look up to them, I no longer beat myself up when I don’t accomplish what they do. So, for now, I’ll leave the stack of papers on my desk. The disorganized books will still be there in the morning. I know with confidence that this year will be filled with laughter and growth and mistakes. I will still get notes saying, “i luv you mis frajric,” when I don’t have it all together. And because I’m going to ensure that I stay happy and healthy, maybe that actually does make me a “good” teacher. 

3 thoughts on “I’m a Bad Teacher

  1. OMGosh, it’s River! Have you been hiking lately? I’m the white-haired woman who brought food to you and your fellow AT hikers at the Fontana Dam shelter several years ago. Don’t know if you remember, but I will never forget! You hiked through and I can only dream of doing it. I’m 73 now and not in the greatest shape, but I can still remember my short section hikes, and dream, and reminisce about my younger days under that canopy of green. So, you’re a teacher! I have no doubt you have some wonderful memories to share with your students. Not sure if you’ve shared where your trail name came from! Lol! Enjoy life, River. It is so very short. Forever a friend, Jan Kelley

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    1. Hi, Jan!! It is SO good to hear from you. I think of you and our run-in often. I will also never forget- as well as your comment, a few months later, when you reminded me to “do it now” and to do it for those who cannot. I am still hiking and adventuring, now living on the coast of Maine. My students don’t know the origin of “River,” but I’m sure they would get a kick out of it! I love to make people (though a select audience) laugh with that one. What have you been up to? Adventuring, I’m sure! I hope you’re still carrying on with your trail magic. You definitely touched my life! Be well. Your friend, River

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