The traffic moved steadily down the highway yesterday morning as the sun made its ascent from behind the Sierra Nevadas. It’s a dramatic sight to see the rugged silhouette edging above the mist-laden countryside. The sky lightened into its pinks, oranges, and periwinkles. The scene allows for quiet reflection of how lucky I am to witness dawn’s arrival– it’s a time to embrace a new beginning. Yet, I was not embracing new beginninings; I wondered instead if maybe I should have called in a sub and stayed home. Did I really have the energy to make it through another day? Fatigue and exhaustion creaked in my bones. News of my friends’ personal tragedies, setbacks, and questioning weighed on my mind and heart. In the past two weeks I shared tears with three friends and colleagues, and many of my students were also on the verge of tears. Many of us, it seemed, were barely hanging on. In that moment on my drive a meteor shot across the sky.
Meteors are also known by the more fanciful names of shooting stars or falling stars. After watching its bright light pierce the sky, I wondered if it was an auspicious sign of fortune– was it something I wished on? A sign of hope and potential of shooting towards goals and destinations? Or was it an omen? A sign of falling , burning out, extinguishing from shining so bright for so long? It symbolized the crossroads that many of us are in.
A broken clock greeted me as I walked into my room. My failing LCD projector that I need to use my clickers and document reader, to show film versions of Othello and Pride and Prejudice, and to have my students present their power point presentations, said “Hi ya!” from its defunct perch on my ceiling. My sluggish computer groaned its greeting as it half-heartedly opened my grade book. The stack of essays panted like a hyperactive Pomeranian jumping at my heels, “Read me! Read me!” As always I restrained my impulse to kick them. My whiteboard petulantly demanded the opening activity, and I resisted throwing my dry-erase markers at it. My overhead projector gloated over the fact that it was the only piece of technology that actually worked correctly; we all know how riveting overhead transparencies marred with my messy handwriting are. I won’t even go into the mechanizations that are happening outside my classroom and campus that are working to change our school. Do I sound bitter and burned out?
There’s one factor that can save teachers from burn out: students. Teachers can list all of the things that suck about their job: lack of technology, aggressive/indifferent parents, poor morale, testing, grading, etc. There is always one big BUT that saves us: the “but my students are great.” Yesterday it was my students who carried me through. They have been working hard for me all year, but yesterday was just one of those special days. My history students embraced the Spanish-American War news-cast assignment. They excitedly planned their roles, asked if they could bring in props (including a fog machine), one group wanted to borrow my swords that I use for Othello, and one student, who is the most disengaged, proudly told me that she was going to be Commodore Dewey. They wrote me nice notes in their self-assessments. My TAs made me a nice poster and hung it on my cupboard doors as a surprise.
My seniors used their time to review for their exam by reading their notes quietly. One came up to me and verbally told me all that he had learned (which turned out to be everything). As some began to finish early, I wrote a quote from Othello, which we will begin next week, on the board and asked them to write a reflection on it. They quietly got our their pens and paper and uncomplainingly responded to: “Oh, monstrous world! Take note! Take note!/ O world, to be direct and honest is dangerous!”. I walked around the room, read some of their responses, wrote my response and questions to their thoughts, and they continued writing to answer those questions. The amazing thing about this is that I said not a word– all of this happened in silence as we all showed respect to those still taking the exam. Those who used the entire class time for the test scribbled down the quote to respond to it over the weekend. It was a teacher’s dream.
Their actions showed me that while I was tired and worn-out, I was not yet burned out. How could I burn out when my students still burn brightly for knowledge and thought? When they still strive for improvement? It was one of those days where I saw myself and my students as a meteor shower of shooting stars– reaching, striving, ready to make our mark on the world.