The Triage of Teaching

By Julie Rine, Minerva Local Education Association

Last week was a hard week. A really, really hard week. I caught kids cheating on a vocabulary quiz. Interim reports were due and many of my juniors have Fs in my class. An assignment was due that roughly 20% of my students did not turn in. Another class turned in essays with so many mistakes in areas we had gone over in-depth, I thought they might be doing it on purpose as a joke. All twenty of the pencils I make available for kids to borrow (bright pink with “Justin Bieber is my BAE” imprinted on them, to discourage “accidentally” taking one out of my room) went missing. All twenty, gone. Overnight.

I felt disrespected and as if nothing I said or did or planned or prayed made one bit of difference to any of my students.

I told myself that I needed to care less. That this is just a job, and I can’t allow the minor setbacks to affect me so deeply. I am not John Keating from Dead Poets Society, much as I would like to be; I am a real-world teacher of real kids, and what happens in my classroom is not what happens on a Hollywood-classroom movie set.

triageI found myself thinking about advice I was given my first year of teaching from a veteran educator. He found me in my classroom after school one day crying. We were only a month into the school year, and over half of the students in my reading class had Fs. I felt like a fraud, like I was a failure myself, incapable of teaching anything to anyone effectively. I can’t remember his name, but I can still picture him standing in my doorway, a graying beard on his face and a smoker’s rasp in his voice, as he said, “Honey, listen. It’s a war. And you are a nurse on the battlefield. There are bodies everywhere, and some of them are too far gone to help. You can’t save everyone; you have to step over some to get to the ones you can save. Step over those kids and concentrate on the ones you can really help.”

I nodded at him, but inside, I was horrified. The 23 year-old me was sure that I could save them all; I just had to figure out how. Their grades in my class were in my control. After all, I was the teacher.

The definitely-older and hopefully-wiser me now knows that there is not much I truly control in my classroom. I can plan lessons and write assessments, and more often, revise plans and assessments. I can try to inspire my students, try to help them see the value of education, the relevance of what I teach, and yes, even the importance of preparing for those awful state tests. But just as I make choices and decisions both as I plan and on the fly, my students make choices.

And sometimes they choose to cheat. Sometimes they choose not to turn in assignments, or not to study for a test. Sometimes they choose to wait until the last minute to work on an essay. And apparently, sometimes they choose to take 20 hot pink Justin Bieber pencils.

This doesn’t make them bad kids. It makes them typical teenagers who sometimes make bad choices.

But I’m not ready to step over any kids just yet. If they are lying on the battlefield and deemed by some to be “too far gone”, at some point they were injured. Something happened to put them in that position, and most likely, lots of people in their lives have stepped over them. I can’t be just one more person to walk away from them in favor of easier cases. I’m experienced enough to know that I can’t save all of them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try. Some of my students have solid home lives with lots of support, yet they make occasional bad decisions. Some of my students have a lot of history and a lot of pain to overcome, and they bring those burdens to school with them. They all deserve my attention and my best efforts. Maybe I can’t reach them all on the same day. Today I might give my attention to the girl crying in the bathroom, but tomorrow, I will be back for the kid who needs help writing a thesis statement. The triage of teaching isn’t about who we give up on and who we still treat; it’s about choosing our battles, but never giving up the fight. It’s about doing our best to help all of our kids, no matter how many other people have stepped over them, no matter how much they’re hurting, and no matter what choices they make that in turn make our jobs harder.

There’s a lot I can’t control at school, and that gets frustrating. I get angry. I get disappointed. I get tired. But that all comes from caring, and when I stop caring, it’s time to get out. I take things too personally sometimes, and I forget that the 100+ people I spend every day with are still growing and learning, and becoming an adult is not an easy process. In fact, I’m pretty sure I haven’t entirely mastered it myself. I may not always like my students’ choices, but I’ll stay in the battlefield. Thanksgiving is coming, and I will use that long weekend to count my blessings, among them those crazy kids who drive me nuts. I will restock my arsenal of physical and emotional supplies, and next week, I’ll be ready to fight again.



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