it’s hard being a teacher.

quitting is a constant and persistent thought in my mind. when i wake up, when i’m driving to school, when i pull out the keys to my classroom out of my pocket — i am in a binding state of distress.

as a friend and business associate once likened the way he lawyers, it’s gentle pressure relentlessly applied.

the constant and flummoxing pressure is the reason why i fill my off-hours with chores and mind-consuming hobbies. there is no such thing as relaxing. whether it’s competitive card games, buying and distributing goods, or obsessively rearranging my mess of an apartment — i live like a shark; the moment i stop swimming is the moment i start drowning.

because being a teacher is like being an escape artist. for six (contracted) hours a day, i am in a dangerous (for introverts) environment where i am tasked with engaging an unwilling audience. i am complerely vulnerable, hovering over a pool of piranhas, and the rope holding me is burning. i’ve just lost the key to my straitjacket, and i need a quick solution or i’m going to lose my life and the crowd.

i escape just in time. the bell rings, the lesson goes about as well as i planned, and about 75% of my students turn in their assignments where it needs to be turned in (digitally on google classroom).

half of them will receive passing grades. the rest will have either copied their work from another student or source, done the absolute bare minimum, or written down a bunch of silly nonsensical answers because they really didn’t get it and didn’t bother to ask any questions.

it’s frustrating having to hand out a grade a student deserves because most of my students — if they had only tried — would deserve so much better. but we teachers don’t, and shouldn’t, grade on potential. i agree with thomas edison that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and i make sure my students know it.

“this is a cte class. career. technical. education. you don’t get paid for the days you don’t work.”

in short, you will get graded on what you turn in, and i want to see some effort.

i give them plenty of time to complete assignments. the first major project for my computer science course is a game coded in scratch, and i schedule it for three weeks from concept to completion.

for those who don’t know, scratch is a coding program that, in its own words, “is a project of the lifelong kindergarten group at the mit media lab.”

you might think three weeks is a long time to code a game using code-blocks designed for kindergartners, but you should come try it — teaching it, i mean. when a student, two weeks in, asks you a day-one question, like: “how do i even start this thing?” you’ll understand why i have bald spots.

and i know what you’re thinking. two weeks in? that’s got to be a teacher problem. you must not have explained it right. you need to work one on one with some of these kids.

because all means all, right? as in, we give all kids the opportunity to succeed.

that student asking for help the few days before it’s due is the one i’ve been spending all my time on. that’s the student whose hand is always raised — the one i’m sitting next to and directing because they’re relying on me to guide them by hand. and each day, that project gets wiped, erased, forgotten because of a lost password, options blanked because of unverified email, or never completed due to a loss of attention or general dislike for me and the class.

that student will leave class to go to the bathroom for 45 minutes, get suspended, and come back a week after the assignment was due and ask for an extension.

this isn’t a post where i blame my students. these so-called bad students are some of my favorite people. sure, they frustrate me on a daily basis, but they’re the ones that visit me after they’ve graduated.

they’re the ones i remember most, and the ones who appreciate me the most. they come in, grown up and more mature. they shake my hand, look me in the eye, and they say, “thank you for failing me.”

wait. what?

a marine recruiter once gave a presentation in my class. he talked about how his whole life, teachers pushed him through school. he dared them to fail him, but they gave him just enough to graduate. until he joined the marines, he wasted his life wondering what went wrong.

“no one let me fail,” he said.

no one likes to fail. my life is filled with regrets. mistakes, ill-timed decisions, bad calls. if there’s one thing i am actually pretty good, it’s failing.

and there is no teacher like failure.

when a student thanks me for failing them, the moment is bittersweet. on the one hand, they’ve taken a painful experience and become much stronger.

but to me, i’m reminded of history. you can’t change the past, but the future always begs the question: what if?

when you’re responsible for a student’s immediate future, the prospect of college or even being able to suit up for friday night’s football game, giving them a bad grade will keep you up at night, deserved or not. supervillains only dream of this kind of power — the ability to not only affect someone’s life in the moment, but also for the foreseeable future. anyone with a conscience will tell you that college coursework, teacher workshops, and all those expensive professional development days do not prepare you for the guilt, the gnawing insecurity, and the indecision that comes with.

sometimes i spend an hour on grades, checking the computer’s math, hoping to squeeze something out to get a student a d-.

and while i keep a jar marked on my desk labeled “student tears” to scare my kids straight, i’ve struggled to keep my composure when a student actually came to me sobbing about their report card.

even though my gut tells me i’m right, that i am justified in following my guidelines to a strict t — i can’t help but waver.

as a teacher with a soft spot, you assign extra credit, you stay six hours after class ends to give that student a place to work, and you try your best to get that student to pass.

and sometimes, no matter how many times you go over the numbers, a student falls short. it’s usually a case of too little, too late. you give the student the grade they deserve because the world will be a much harsher judge than you will ever be.

if there’s anyway i can get myself to sleep at night, it’s by telling myself that i am in the business of correcting behavior. i am a student’s surrogate parent, best friend, and mortal enemy — and sometimes all three at once. and if need be, i have to tell a student that they’ve failed.

it’s part of the job, and it’s part of life. call it fighting for the integrity of the class. call it sticking to principles. call it whatever you want. but no one gets something for nothing. not in my class.

the past four years have been an incredible test of my character. i am definitely not the same person i was. i am still passionate, but detached. i am exacting, cold, and calculated when it comes to instruction. i relate to my students, but i maintain authority.

i am resolute even when i cause suffering.

and i think about quitting every day. ultimately, i make a very conscious decision to stay. i have to. never have i felt so fulfilled and rewarded. no other job has given me so much purpose even if that purpose is seldom realized in myself.

i put my students first even when they lose faith. they struggle, they fight, and they fall short.

and when they succeed, i give them all the credit.

now that i think about it, i’m not the escape artist. my kids are. everything they struggle with is the straitjacket. education is the key, and this turbulent time called adolescence is the water.

i am the audience. standing on my feet, screaming at the top of my lungs.

“you can do it. you have to.”

 

a response to: ‘No zero’ policy: Florida teacher says she was fired for defying school’s ‘no zero’ policy (USA TODAY)