“Jen, are you ok?” … “I’m fine.”
“Hey Jen, how are ya today?” … “Oh, I’m fine. Just tired.”
“Jen, are you doing alright?” … “Yeah, sorry. I’m just really tired.”
It’s scary how you can go from being yourself to completely forgetting who you are. Life is so unpredictable. We are so in reach of our dreams one minute, and then unexpected circumstances can pull us apart before we know it. For those who have experienced the impacts of depression and anxiety know how much it can take a toll on your personality.
“Morning, Ms. N! *gives hug*”
“Ms. N, you seem sad today.” … “No, I’m not sad, just feeling really tired is all.” … “What could you be tired about?” … “(sarcasm) Oh, I don’t know. Maybe that I stay up late at night to make sure that I can give you the best education possible. Might have something to do with it, right?” … “Haha! Yeah! Shoot, I’d be tired too!”
“Ms. N, do you have an iphone?” … “Yes” … “Do you have the facebook and the twitter on it?” … “Uh, I do…” … “Do you have snapchat?” … “…Yes……” … “Oh can you add me so that I can snapchat with you!?”
“Oh my gosh Ms. N. You will NEVER guess what I heard today at recess…”
“Ms. N, what do you do on the weekends?” … ‘Well I get to sleep in until 8, so that’s pretty cool. Otherwise I’m usually planning for school and working so that I can teach you. Try not to be too jealous of my wild and exciting life.” … “You have to plan on the weekends?! That sounds boring… don’t you ever go out to the bars with your friends or something like that??”
“Ms. N, do you have a boyfriend?” … “Nope” … “A husband?” … “No” … “A fiance??” … “You guys…” … “Well…why don’t you??”
“Good morning, Ms. N!” … “Good morning, Silly Lilly! How was your weekend?” … “SO GOOD I smiled, like, all weekend!”
“I read this whole chapter book over the weekend by myself!!” … “Woohoo! Give me five!” … “Do I own at reading?” … “Dude. You own at reading.”
For those of you who work with kids everyday know the amount of joy and happiness they can bring you. 5th graders are sassy, sarcastic, social young adults who just want to be hugged, praised, and acknowledged as much as a kindergartener. Teachers have it lucky in that we can positively impact our kids’ lives AND the feelings are easily reciprocated. Teachers also know that it is hard to always give your 120% while you are at your best. So imagine trying to be on your A-Game when you are hating yourself? However, also imagine what it feels like when your kids somehow manage to see the real you, even though you know you are not your true self.
Fall 2013 I was set to start student teaching. I was placed in a 5th grade classroom. The kids? Absolutely wonderful individuals with so much beauty and personality! Seriously, the personality was insane. The baggage that they brought with them from home life? Heart-breaking. In retrospect, knowing how they especially were depending on the classroom to be a consistent safe space made me that much more dedicated. I mean, all kids deserve their classroom to be safe and uphold consistency. But those who come from no solid foundation at home deserve it all even more. They deserve a teacher who is dedicated and excited to be there for them. They deserve a teacher who is ready with answers to their questions and who wants to see them grow into confident individuals.
They deserved a teacher who, at the time, was not me.
“So how do you think your lesson went?” … “Awful” … “What did you think was awful?” … “Everything”
As teaching progressed I grew into this cynical, negative, crabby, sad person. It seemed that it came out of nowhere (came in like a wrecking ball). Tears were shed on a daily basis, meltdowns occurred from the stress, and forget the constructive self-criticism after teaching lessons. There was nothing constructive about it. I can remember the days of driving into school thinking “Why am I doing this?” or “What behavior is going to stretch me far today?” or “I hate working with kids.” It was such a switch from the usual, “I can’t wait to see what today brings!” and, “Heck yeah my kids are the sh**!”
Weeks passed and I kept becoming this person I didn’t recognize. This person who was always sad, crying, crabby, avoiding people, confused, and developing self-harmful thoughts. One morning as I was driving into school I was having a serious conversation with myself about quitting student teaching and just forgetting about it all together. I knew that if I cried again during prep that it would be the last time. I went into school early to go over my lessons with my teacher. She sat me down and said that she was concerned about me. She noticed that my behavior was impacting my ability to comprehend the tasks at hand. She said that the kids have not noticed me being a negative person, but that it could develop into that type of situation. Without warning the tears came and I began to not just cry, but sob. The tears would not stop flowing and I felt my heart sink deep into my stomach. I expressed how I would wake up feeling instantly sad. “My mind is always wired with worries and thoughts that did not seem reasonable.” I had been avoiding friends, and my energy level was pathetic. My teacher comforted me and said that it would be in my best interest to take the day off and go talk to a counselor. I apologized for being such a lousy student teacher. She responded in a motherly tone, “I’m worried about you, kiddo. You are not a lousy student teacher.” I was able to get seen by a counselor, who referred me to a psychiatrist. It was then that my life began to turn around for the better.
After my diagnosis, my parents helped me come to terms that it was not my time to be a teacher. They helped me admit that it was best to take an incomplete for the semester and start over fresh in the spring, or a year if necessary. My teacher allowed and requested that I come back into the classroom and volunteer. She wanted me to feel like I had a purpose, and added that the kids really missed me and were sad to hear that I would not be their teacher anymore. I agreed to come back in. It was uncomfortable and almost brought me to tears when I told them I am not their teacher anymore for health reasons. The kids reacted as though they were bummed, but also with sensitivity and understanding. “Ms. N… you gotta do what you gotta do, you know?” So, so true.
Volunteering in the classroom was the best decision. I had a blast coming in and maintaining my relationship with the kids. Everyday they all greeted me with a hug saying, “Yay Ms. N is here!” At the beginning of my volunteering, it was challenging to always show my happiness and enthusiasm, but deep down I wanted to be my old self again very badly. The person who was energetic and joyful with kids, who was not afraid to pull sarcasm out in the open and use it to make kids smile and laugh.
As my volunteering time continued, it was inevitable that the kids wanted to have meaningful conversations. We would talk about home life, school drama (mostly about what happened at recess/who had a crush on who), and what it is like to be a teenager. They were so interested in hearing about how I survived junior high and teen years. They were quick to say thank you and offer smiles and hugs, and slow to talk back and lash out. They were beginning to learn that there were kinder ways to react and speak to adults. Before I knew it, I felt like I had a purpose to be there. I began to feel like my old self again and had no problem working with kids in small groups. It became wonderful watching them improve and develop their confidence in asking questions. I loved every minute of their successes – the small and the big ones.
My time in the classroom was wrapping up. The kids kept asking, “When are you leaving again?” and “Do you have to leave us?” It melted my heart knowing that they seemed to enjoy having me come in and be there for them. On my last day volunteering I brought them cards and candy canes. I received hug after hug, and kids telling me that they were going to miss me “a ton.” However, I don’t think they realized how much I would miss them. We had a party in the room and played the game 4 Corners. Some of the kids wanted a picture together, so we saved some time at the end of the day for that. It was such a memorable last day. It was not until the last day volunteering that I realized that I was myself again. The kids helped me bring myself back to life.
Even though I am not their teacher anymore, I still think of them all everyday and wonder how they are doing. I know many of their home situations and personal struggles, and just hope that they are doing the best that they can. Teaching is a terrific career. It is a tough lifestyle, but has so many rewards that have a much higher value than any dollar amount. Teachers and students have such a unique relationship in that they do so much for each other. You have the ability to impact a student’s life, and they too have an incredible way of touching our lives. Ten(+) years from now I know that wherever I’m teaching and living, I’ll always be thinking of my 5th graders and how they helped me find myself again and turn my life around.