My children have one week of school left. Hooray! This is our final weekend of homework before a nice, long break. All we have to do is study for two spelling bees; locate 12 different text books and library books and turn them in; study and pass six finals; volunteer at a park play date; register three kids for new schools; supervise one day trip to Knott’s Berry Farm; and attend two separate award nights and graduation ceremonies. Not bad for one week!

Obviously school is a lot of work for everyone involved. I used to be an elementary school teacher myself, back when my two boys were toddlers. At that time I began teaching second grade in Corona, California, and I was as eagerly optimistic, frightened, and naive as an eight-months pregnant first-time mother.On the Friday before school began, I briefly met the principal who smiled and shook my hand and handed me a big, blue notebook with all the district rules printed inside. “You’ll need to review this,” he said cheerily. Then he turned to go. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Kirk. We’ll see you Monday!” Apparently that was all the inside information I needed to be a bona-fide teacher. Whoa!

I went home and spent the weekend making bus-shaped name tags and gathering books to read to my class and writing an introductory letter for the parents. I briefly glanced at the district rules notebook. I felt somewhat prepared but mostly just sick to my stomach.

Monday morning rolled around and I arrived at Promenade Elementary School early. I was given the keys to my very own classroom. Nothing prepared me for the drab, uninspired, empty shell of a room that I entered. Every wall was covered in black bulletin board paper with nothing on it. All the cupboards were locked except for one, which was empty. The windows were mottled and blurry and didn’t open. There were some textbooks stacked on the back table, language arts books, but nothing else. The teacher’s desk was basically empty as well. There was no stapler, no scissors, no paper, no pencils, no pens. There were no computers, no bookshelves, nothing. The only useful items in the room were some broken pieces of chalk left beneath the chalkboard.

After a quick, horrified assessment, I walked back up to the front office. Excuse me,” I stammered to the secretary. “I don’t understand where all of my supplies are? I don’t seem to have any paper, or pencils, or crayons, or text books except for language arts…”

Pat smiled at me sweetly and swiveled around in her chair. She grabbed a big, black notebook off a shelf. “Here you go, honey, this is the district supply list. You get $200 twice a year to order supplies, and the order form is in the notebook. It takes about two to three weeks for the supplies to come in once you turn in your completed form to me.”

I looked at her aghast. “How am I supposed to teach for the next two to three weeks while I wait for supplies?” Pat shook her head sadly. “You’ll have to borrow paper and pencils from other teachers. Here’s some paper I can give you for today. And there are no math or science text books, just manipulatives. If there are no bins of manipulatives in your room I will try to locate some for you.”

I returned to my blank classroom with a meager stack of paper and some borrowed pencils, feeling defeated before the first bell had even rung. None-the-less, at 8:58am that morning, the school year officially began. I spent an hour getting to know my new students, and then, feeling lost as to what to do next, I told them we would take a tour of the school. We practiced lining up in two straight lines and off we went down the hallway. We traveled about thirty feet when I stopped. I had glimpsed the inside of another teacher’s room and couldn’t help but stare, mesmerized.

This teacher, Ms. Dallas, had the most colorful, enchanting classroom I’d ever seen. Kids artwork hung on all of the walls. Framed collages from her previous classes lined the top of her file cabinet. A painted bookshelf at the front of the room burst with books. Nearby sat a white rocking chair complete with an ABC stitched seat cover and a #1 Teacher pillow. But the object that took my breath away was the room-length map of the river Thames that stretched over her blackboard along with a life-sized plaster bust of Shakespeare that perched at the front of her room like a literary mascot.

As I took in the scene, I felt a wave of pity for my students. Here they were, stuck with me, a first year teacher with no supplies and no script and no Shakespeare bust. Mercy! Could we all transfer to Ms. Dallas’ classroom? As I stood there fighting back tears, Ms. Dallas motioned for her students to rise. While my students and I watched from outside the windows, her entire class performed the Pledge of Allegiance in American Sign Language!

It was all too much. I hurried my students down to the empty black top where we played an uninspired game of Red Rover. The rest of the day passed in a blur, as did most of that entire year, given that I had little guidance and even less gear to teach with. As June rolled around, I found myself amazed that I had made it through the second grade in one piece. I was truly sad to say goodbye to my students, even though I never could quite shake the feeling that what they learned from me was not nearly what they deserved.

On the last day of the school year a sweet student named Tiffany presented me with a home-made card. It was a big, cut out heart, and on the top she had written: To Mrs. Kirk -The Best Techer In The World! My eyes filled with tears. Never had a card been so apt, so illuminating, so perfectly able to summarize a performance. In school, just as in life, sometimes you are given treasure, and sometimes you are given trash. Tiffany made me feel like we’d both found a bit of treasure amongst the trash that year. 

People who train to become teachers are buoyed by knowledge and compassion, both of which the world needs in greater supply. It’s a profession that deserves more support, not less. It’s a job that should entitle the holder to financial security and an esteemed place within society, not a white-knuckled, agonized ride on the fringes of poverty.

Because teaching is hard. Even for the best techers in the world.

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