Monday, December 17, 2012

Teachers and the not-so-starry path

I've written too often about tragedies involving violence. Nutty people killing innocents is sadly becoming all too frequent, but today, I'm going to write about teachers.  The adults killed in the Newtown, Connecticut incident were teachers who died trying to protect the kids in their care.

Over twenty years ago, I entered the teaching profession.  My career began as a teaching assistant at the college level, and I had no idea what teaching really entailed.  When I began teaching high school, I was an idealist, and I wrongly believed that I would stand in front of my students pontificating like some guru.  They would sit in rapt attention as I dispensed my knowledge and wisdom. Needless to say, I had a rude awakening. Students were sometimes unruly and did not think me wise, but as the job grew more demanding, my commitment to teaching increased.  Students provided me with a challenge, and I found ways to reach them and teach them.

They pushed me, and I pushed back.  On this rather bumpy journey, I learned about my students as individuals.  Their strengths, flaws, and special needs made them unique people.  I'll remember some of my students forever, and the most memorable were often the ones who required my attention more than did their peers.

Teaching isn't always easy.  In fact, it sometimes is a contact sport. Some students challenge us verbally and/or physically.  Parents sometimes see teachers as adversaries.  So why do teachers enter the profession of low pay and frequent insults?  Teachers show up every day because the rewards cancel out the negative moments.  I continue to teach because students I once taught still trust me enough to ask for my help on papers they are writing for college.  I teach because my students have said, "I hated how hard you were, but I'm really glad now you were.  I aced my college English classes."  Some of my students have told me, "I'm a teacher because of you."  I entered the profession of teaching as an idealist.  Now, I'm no longer idealistic, and my approach to teaching is as a hardened warrior who has seen the horror of war but still loves the fight for right.  I'm now a writer as well as a teacher, but the profession never leaves me.  Two of my protagonists are teachers.  In THE DOCTOR AND THE WAR WIDOW (, Harley is jaded and disillusioned until love helps her reclaim her desire to fulfill her mission.  She leaves her comfortable job to pursue a path even more demanding than the one she has.

Why do I teach?  I teach for the reason many teachers do.  There was some teacher who inspired them. In grade school, I was  a fat, shy kid with buck teeth until Mrs. Linda Pappalardo made me think I was special.  In high school, I was a bookish but uninspired student until Sr. Martha Maguire ignited my love of literature.

So, why do I and many of my fellow teachers continue to work in a profession too often like a contact sport?  We teach because we remember those inspirational people who moved us, and we hope to move others as we were.  We want to help young people reach the stars, but that path is not always a star-filled sky.  We sometimes must discipline our students. We sometimes are called to protect them even when they don't want our help.  More and more, teachers are even required to lay down their lives for their students.  The pictures of the dead children in Newtown, Connecticut were devastating, but  I was most moved by the picture of the dead teachers.  Victoria Soto was around the age of many of my former students who now teach.  She died protecting the children in her charge. Her young life is also cut tragically short.

The path to helping students realize their goals can be a dark, starless night, but then, the stars emerge--the stars that beam youth and beauty.

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