Being a teacher in a challenging time

Kathleen McQuillan

Last week, National Public Radio featured a poem created by Kwame Alexander, NPR’s 2022 poet-in-residence that included submissions from listeners entitled “Who Will Clean Out The Desks”. It was a way to acknowledge the extraordinary work of our nation’s teachers as part of National Teachers Month. Over three hundred memoirs and stories poured in to inspire the poem, an example of what’s known as a “crowdsourced” poem. Alexander’s recitation with NPR host, Rachel Martin, moved me to tears.
It was my original plan to share the poem in its entirety, in this space where my essay appears, but journalistic practicalities rendered that idea impossible. The power of the poem’s message has not left me.
Entries were requested long before the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. However, some submissions arrived in the days following that sad event that took the lives of nineteen children and two teachers. Despite the poet’s intention to celebrate the work of teachers, Alexander could not ignore those later submissions expressing the horror and grief sweeping through Uvalde and our entire nation.
That same week, I met with a friend who had retired after many years of teaching in our area schools. She was experiencing shock and heartbreak after hearing from that distant rural community in Texas. Through the course of her career, she had lost many of her students from her to unexpected tragedy. Grief resurfaces every time she recalls those times.
I, too, remembered the painful shock that struck our community each time we lost one of our children. She and I recounted nearly a dozen incidents that had prematurely taken those young lives. Together, we empathized with the people of Uvalde. I saw the sorrow in her eyes. Teaching had been “more than a job” to my friend. It was her calling her. Her students’ visions for themselves were part of her own. She was deeply invested in their futures. And then suddenly, they were gone.
Days later, I am looking around me. My world seems oddly calm. My immediate distractions are a way to defend a false illusion of safety that protects me from unimaginable heartache. I suppose, we all want to believe that these episodes of threatening turbulence only happen somewhere else. And even though these tragic events are brought to us by reporters in faraway places, down deep we know that they can and do occur anywhere when least expected.
Early each morning, my little companion, Duffy, wakes me with a subtle restlessness and a soft bark. I rise to take him for our routine stroll down the driveway. I love that it’s spring so we can pause and indulge in the serenity and beauty of dawn. Once back indoors, I fix my toast and coffee and turn on the radio for the headlines covering the previous day’s happenings, never very uplifting these days. I begin to craft my “To Do” list — things that must get done today, and those I’d like to do, if I find the time. Phone calls to family and friends, “business” that must be attended to, maybe a break from chores to read a poem or two. (Let the distractions begin.) Never do my lists build in extra time for coping with some unexpected event that completely puts my original plan to sunder. Generally speaking, my life seems predictable unless, of course, fate has something else in store. I should know better than to take calm waters for granted.
In reality, life is a mixture of mundane routines mingled with ever-emerging chains of events that compete for our attention and response. The external world has its way of squeezing into our private mental and emotional terrain, constantly reshaping our choices. Choices about where to direct our energy. Choices that present risks and opportunities to explore, listen, and learn. To advance our understanding and build confidence. To express ourselves, and build community. The “real stuff” of life.
Alexander’s poem rejoices the way teachers introduces our youth to the “real stuff of life”. In the process, our teachers give away little pieces of themselves — day after day, year after year — because they know that their students matter. They genuinely care about them!
It’s June now. For teachers and students, it’s been a long nine months. “Graduation” implies moving on to the next level. It’s meant to be a time of pride and joy for important accomplishments. But this year, our June celebrations are once again marred by tragedy. Our teachers are not only exhausted by nine months of hard work and the many academic and interpersonal responsibilities they’ve carried. This year, many will bear the overwhelming burden of grief.
Now is an important time for us to reflect on what it means to be a teacher in today’s world. Stop and imagine for a moment the challenges, and risks, of standing in front of a classroom full of hungry hearts and minds at a time that challenges beyond measure our security and hope. There’s no doubt that teachers deserve a generous outpouring of recognition, respect and gratitude. Kwame Alexander’s poem helps us focus on just that.
We’ve all had teachers who left an indelible impression on us — the ones who offered their heart and soul to us and to our own children. Consider all the times they struggled with heartbreak over the students who were, in a very unique sense, their children, too.
If you need something to help carve out a moment of reflection, Kwame’s poem will provide a way. Read it, or better yet, listen as he and Rachel recite it aloud. Google “Who Will Clean Out The Desks”. You’ll be moved. Then, if possible, you may find time to reach out and share a few kind words, a “Thank-you!”, to a teacher. Trust me. It will go far to “make their day!”
You can read or listen to “Who Will Clean Out The Desks” in its entirety by visiting www.npr.org/2022/05/31/.

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