This week at the high school, a student wrote a paper for an English class and turned it in for peer response. The paper was pages-long rant about how all teachers are disgusting, evil, uncaring pieces of garbage. I know who wrote it and I know about the paper because at least ten people have wanted to talk to me about it since it happened. I haven’t had much to say until today.
As someone who reads student writing on a regular basis, I follow a few basic rules for myself when it comes to their work. First, I don’t talk about their writing unless they give me permission, or unless I need to report something illegal or dangerous. (I tell every single class on the first day of school that I am a mandatory reporter, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.) My other main rule for myself is to try my hardest not to judge when reading personal student writings, and to never judge a piece of writing that I haven’t personally read.
So I was upset to hear that one of my students wrote something that was supposedly so terrible and cruel, but I refused to comment about it because I hadn’t read it, and I’m not going to gossip about some kid’s writing without ever reading it. Except this morning, someone shared it with me. And it really is just as horrible as others said.
My first reaction was that undeniable mix of anger and hurt. I know it was a rant against “teachers” in general and not me in particular, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. I taught that person for two years. I held her when she cried. I celebrated when she succeeded. I can remember distinct moments when I personally stood up for her against others. So it definitely feels like a slap in the face that she thinks all teachers are terrible human beings. It makes me regret every ounce of care and attention that I gave to her because that means I could have been giving my time to someone who actually appreciated it. I know that’s not how teaching works. I know that I have to (and will) care regardless of who appreciates it, but it’s hard to remember that during times like this.
I will not say that all her points were wrong. There are plenty of teachers in this world who don’t care or who are mean or bad in some way. But there’s also a monumental difference between not liking a teacher as a person and that person not being a good educator. You can think I’m a bitch all you want, but you can’t say I’m a bad teacher or that I don’t care about my job.
I know logically that I should not take this personally. It wasn’t written in my class, it wasn’t directed toward me, and it really has nothing much to do with me.
Except that, when it comes to teaching, for me everything is personal. I am not here just to do a job.
I am not here because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life. I am not here because I get some sick, twisted pleasure from forcing teenagers to do what I tell them to do. I am here because I love teaching. I love teaching more than almost anyone or anything else in my life. It is not just my job, it is my passion. I don’t teach writing because I want to create perfect writers; I teach writing because I want every person who enters my classroom to be able to find his or her personal voice. I want them to discover the power of words, and how, if you learn to write, then no one can ever take your voice away from you. People can silence you if you are speaking; they can’t silence a writer forever.
I don’t know what I will do next time I see the girl. I do know that I will never forget her words from this week. I helped her to find her voice and she used that voice to belittle and attack everything I have devoted my life to. I can’t hate her for having her opinion, but I’m not sure I can forgive her for the words she’ll never be able to take back. Maybe that’s the most dangerous thing about allowing people to find their voices; I can’t control what happens when I don’t like what I hear.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.