I sat nervously on the flowery couch in the living room of my literacy mentor. It was about two weeks before the start of my first year teaching, and I was suffering from a panic attack.
At 46 years old and entering my third professional career, you’d think I would have developed the confidence to handle a classroom of second graders. I had spent the previous year as a teacher candidate in first and third grade, and I had volunteered for two years in third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms.
But this would be different. Now I would be on my own, responsible for the academic, social, and emotional growth for 27 seven-year-olds.
A few nights earlier, I had dreamed that I was kneeling next to a student to help her with a math problem. She turned to her left and informed me, “You smell funny.”
Clearly, I was scared.
I rambled on about my anxiety to my mentor who had taught countless students and teachers during her decades as an educational leader. She understood the system, the profession, and people — children and grown-ups. After about 20 minutes of pouring out my soul, she looked at me intently and then laughed.
Yes, she laughed.
The daughter of a Methodist minister from Jamaica, Dr. Barbara Swaby had come to the United States in the 1960s at the age of 16 on a full scholarship to a small college in Tennessee.
Talk about culture shock. She was the only black student on campus, and she had not experienced segregation like this in her young life. Subsequently, she spend most of her time studying.
After finishing her degree early, Barbara moved to Chicago where she taught at an urban school where most families had low-wealth.
She once told me a story about her first year in the classroom. At back-to-school night, she informed the parents that she used a stoplight system for classroom management. Green meant that students were free to do what they needed to in the classroom. Yellow signified that students should return to their desks and work quietly. Red indicated that time was up for the current activity. The next day, one of the fathers showed up at school with a literal stoplight. She thanked him but didn’t ask where he had procured it.
Due to her passion for education, love for students, and supreme intellect, Dr. Swaby quickly became an expert educator. She earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. Along with training teachers, she felt compelled to pay forward the kindness that people had shown her. Barbara has tutored hundreds (or maybe thousands) of students who struggled with reading free of charge, and she founded a reading clinic that pairs master’s degree students with children needing extra instruction.
On top of this, Barbara is an accomplished author. In addition to contributing literature to her professional field, she has composed children’s books. Black Pearl is a touching family story designed to generate self-confidence in black children and help everyone deal with loss. When Will Daddy Be Home is an emotional tale reassuring children whose parents have been incarcerated.
Intense is the word most people use to describe Dr. Swaby. The first day I sat in her class on literacy methods, she announced, “You all are in a difficult profession, but this is the life you have chosen. Let us proceed.” It was stunning, but she was trying to instill in us the weight of the career we were about to enter. Barbara knew all too well that educators in the U.S. are overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. I stayed with the class, and we became close friends.
When she laughed after I told her about my fear of having my first class, I felt uncertain how to interpret her amusement.
She sensed my unease. With a smile and a sparkle in her eyes, she spoke through her laughter, “They are second graders. You cannot ruin them.”
Stunned, I did not know how to respond. What did she mean? What if they can’t read at the end of the school year? What if I can’t differentiate instruction effectively? What if no one brings me a stoplight?
Dr. Swaby went on to assure me that I had the proper training and disposition to embark on my career as an elementary educator. I took the profession seriously, collaborated with my peers, and sought the best interest of my students. She had observed me learn, grow, and learn from my mistakes, and she felt confident that I would apply this way same process to my students. Barbara convinced me that I would bring all of my life experience to bear in the advocacy of school children.
In a word, she believed in me.
Teaching is difficult. Impossible really. Studies show that within a few years after entering the profession there is a 50–70% attrition rate.
Much of this is due to low pay and unrealistic performance standards. With the pressures of society, educators are seen as replaceable cogs in an ineffective machine. Perhaps the system is ineffective but that is due to policymakers, not teachers.
Most teachers love their profession and their students. Consider the time and money teachers invest in children. Countless educators around the country use a portion of their own small paychecks to buy food for their hungry and homeless students. Some teachers purchase clothes and shoes for students whose families cannot afford them. Teachers consult with medical professionals, psychologists, social workers, and court officials in order to advocate for the children in their care.
When school districts do not have the funds to provide adequate professional development, teachers pay for continuing education so they can teach students more effectively.
Of course, some teachers are less than ideal — just like the medical, legal, or any other profession. And we’ve all heard stories of rogue teachers who abuse their students. However, there are over 3 million public school teachers in the United States, and the vast majority are giving their all to ensure each child receives the best education possible.
I have had to begin disability retirement due to a chronic condition, but I still love my profession. With all of the negative talk and cultural portrayals of teachers, I am here to advocate for teachers.
If you are a teacher, you feel the relentless pressure of administration, testing scores, and parents. You wrestle with sleepless nights worrying about your struggling students, and you spend your evenings and weekends grading, writing lesson plans, and rearranging your classroom. You wonder how to pay your bills after you used so much of your paycheck on your students needs. You get discouraged and feel the impossible demands of the profession trying to suck the life out of you.
But know this: I believe in you.
You are a highly trained professional who understands child development, educational psychology, teaching methods, and curriculum. You know what you’re doing and why it matters. You contribute to staff development and make team contributions. You meet with parents before school, after school, and during your 20-minute “lunch break.” You sponsor clubs, attend emergency medical trainings, and make sure the technology in your classroom is ready and updated. You miss doctor appointments and come to school when you’re ill because that’s easier than writing sub plans.
And if you’re lucky, you even get to go to the bathroom.
If all of this sounds impossible, it is. But you do it with grace, skill, and compassion every day. So thank you for your expertise, patience, and dedication. Mostly, thank you for your devotion to kids.
You might not hear this enough, but I hope you know it is true it in your heart.
If you are a teacher and especially a new teacher, I want you to know that I believe in you — just like Barbara believed in me.