OK, so here’s this embarrassing thing I did recently. I kinda promised myself I would never admit this to anyone, so please don’t tell.
It was my friend’s birthday, and my friend is this super impressive person who has been elected to office and whose friends are all impressive people that help people get elected to office and have job titles I’ve only ever heard on “The West Wing” and laugh at jokes I don’t really get. But it was my friend’s birthday so I went, and I had a beer, and tried to cling to my friend who had to bounce all over because, you know, birthday and stuff. So I was sitting with this group at this table, and someone asked, you know, what my deal was.
“I’m a middle school teacher.”
“Oh wow,” they all said, “good for you,” everyone one of them at once said with their eyebrows coming together, and then, as always, “thank you for all that you do,” while every single person put their hands together in a half-prayer thing and bowed just slightly at me.
I don’t know why I hate that phrase so much, except that maybe sometimes it seems like a good way to thank someone who does stuff that seems hard but you don’t really understand why.
Anyway, here’s the embarrassing part. Except first, please know that I was super intimidated and felt weird and that my social awkwardness knows no bounds, so know that first and please do not judge me so harshly when I tell you I replied, “but also I wrote a book about teaching and a few years ago I won Minnesota Teacher of the Year, so, you know not just a teacher.”
Please don’t tell.
I instantly regretted ever saying it, ever coming, ever making any friends ever. But mostly, even more than that I felt like a jerk for randomly trying to brag about myself to strangers, I regretted using that awful, awful phrase, “just a teacher,” that I would have sworn did not live inside my head.
Because I know that I would give all that other stuff away if doing them meant I couldn’t teach anymore, and I know, I swear to you I know, that teaching is the most important job I can imagine being able to do. I know that anyone who isn’t instantly, actually, impressed with teachers doesn’t know the teachers I know.
JUST SOME OF THE TEACHERS I KNOW
I had the chance this weekend to go to my fifth Minnesota Teacher of the Year banquet. We named our newest Teacher of the Year, Jessica Davis, a math teacher in South St. Paul, and remembered last year’s Teacher of the Year, Kelly Holstine, who is brave and brilliant and funny and good.
I sat at a table of former winners, because that’s where I sit now. I was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year five years ago, which was both a whole lifetime ago and also yesterday. I sat at this table with like three doctors of education and people who have shepherded laws through legislature and been nominated for boards of stuff and who still all pass the only real teacher test that matters: Their eyes light up when they talk about kids. Even Roger Tenney, the 1966 Minnesota Teacher of the Year (who was then named National Teacher of the Year in 1967) was there, still brighter and sharper and funnier than I will ever be.
In the audience were a few hundred people, many of them semi-finalists and nominees. At the front of the room were the nine finalists, all of whom could very well be named emperor of teaching forever and I would be happy about it. All nine of them, eloquent and passionate about their message for education, all with eyes unflinchingly focused on their own classrooms and their own students. One in particular, Cory Wade, talked about how every student in his room is “somebody’s someone.”
Oh, and also our commissioner of education spoke, and the president of our state education union, and our governor. All former classroom teachers who have moved from making the world better one kid at a time to
wasting their lives in politicsdedicating their service to bigger ways to make school and life better for more and more kids.
This banquet, which always falls just before Teacher Appreciation Week, is a celebration of all the great things teachers can do, and is an often-inspiring call to the possibilities of our work.
It’s also very near the end of the year, and when it’s been a rough year, it’s hard to feel like I’ve earned it.
All I could think, again and again, surrounded in this room by these people, is holy crap I don’t belong here. Holy crap I don’t deserve this. You should see my test scores this year. You should see the kids I haven’t reached, the lessons that didn’t land, the angry emails and the side-eyed colleagues.
I can’t feel what I feel, that I am just barely hanging on to the end of this year, and not because students aren’t amazing and not because the work isn’t important but because I just didn’t do that great and knowing that makes me so, so tired, and I can’t feel that and also feel like I should be thanked for what I do.
But on the day after the banquet, I came home to a message from a former student. She had clicked on the Google Doodle that day and found out that it was Teacher Appreciation Week. She decided to send me a note, this wonderful human who was an eighth-grader in my English class only a million years ago, to tell me about big things happening in her life, a new graduate degree she was pursuing and how it meant so much to her that in eighth grade I was there at the right time to encourage her and believe in her, how I, me, had greatly impacted her life.
Well dang. Just a teacher indeed.
I’m still tired. It’s been a tough year, but with just under five weeks left, you better believe I can find the energy to live up to the examples of the best teachers I know, the best teachers I’ve had, the best teacher I’ve been. I can do work worth the appreciation, and know the appreciation makes the work worth it.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” and you can order it now. An original version of this piece appeared on Education Post.