Saying goodbye to eighth graders is one of the hardest parts of my job. I’ve been accused in the past of favoring eighth graders over my seventh graders, and while I don’t consciously do that, it’s probably true. It’s hard not to when you’ve spent more time with one group than you have with the other. I justify that the slight favoritism isn’t wrong because every group of students has their chance at being eighth graders, and they earn it by making through seventh grade.
Between free writes and finals, I have spent over 300 hours reading their writing. I have cried when they’ve confessed the worst parts of their lives and I have laughed through their embarrassing moments. I feel as if I’ve lived these last two years with them, watching over them, trying to help them, and giving them an adult who tries her best to not be judgmental about whatever they’re going through. The kind of adult I would have wanted when I was eighth grade.
The last free write for eighth graders is Part II of what I refer to as The Final Goodbye. (Part I is the Tri 3 Final and Part III is the last day of school, in case you’re curious.) Of the three, this is the part that hurts the most. This is the last time I’ll read their writing, and quite a few of them take the opportunity to reflect on the past two years and say goodbye.
Free writing is one of the most important activities that happens in my classroom. Other adults don’t always understand it; they probably think I kick back on Fridays and don’t teach anything because I want a day to relax. It’s the opposite, actually. #FWF creates a ton of work for me as a teacher. First, I force myself to write with my students in every class period. That means I write six different, original pieces of my own work each Friday. Sure, I could sit back and get other work done while my students write, but I’ve done the research and I know how important it is for growing writers to see what a writer looks like in action. Kids don’t learn to write by seeing perfect examples all the time; they learn to write by writing and by watching authentic writing in action. While I’m creating all that writing, I’m not getting any other work done. My students are also creating more work for me to do outside of school. One #FWF equals about eight to nine hours of grading for me each weekend. It’s worth it. Free write gives writers the opportunity to develop their voices, and an authentic voice is the most important thing a writer can have. I am so honored that my students learn to share their voices and put their trust in me.
The real problem with all of this isn’t the time commitment or work on my part. The problem with free writing is that I get to know every single kid in all of my classes on a personal level. I’ve read things from some of my students that they’ve probably never spoken aloud; things that make me cry when I sit alone on my porch and read them; things that make me choke with laughter; things that make me file DHS reports; I’ve read it all. And it’s difficult to read all of that and not get attached to the people behind the words. The last free write is a glaring reminder: these people that I’ve laughed and cried with and yelled at will no longer be a part of my life. In one week, we will only be memories to each other; ghosts from our pasts. After next week, there’s a high percentage of these students that I will never see or speak to again, ever.
That’s the hard part for me. You can’t genuinely care about your students without feeling abandoned when they leave you. How do you go from being a central part of someone’s life for two years, to being nothing at all? Is it easier for others because they didn’t have free writes to create such a personal relationship with each student, or are they just better at keeping in touch than I am? Will I ever reach a point in my teaching career when I don’t miss the kids who have moved on? Will it ever hurt less?
I hope not. The pain I feel now, the sense of loss and grief, reminds me of how much I care about my job. Easing the pain might signal that I don't care anymore, and I don't ever want to be the kind of teacher who doesn't care about kids as individual people instead of thinking of them as just students.
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.