By Suzanne Caines
I’m at that age where people are starting to ask me, mostly in a nice way, if I’m starting to think about retirement. You’ve been teaching forever, they say, their tone an odd mix of bemusement and incredulity. Translation: aren’t you excited to stop working?
Surprising to those who ask, but not to those who know me well, the answer to that question is a hard no. I am not excited to stop working. In fact, I am excited to keep working. I just finished my 34th year of teaching high school English and I can honestly say that I still love it. Yes, love it. Without exception, every single September of my career, I feel true excitement when I walk into a class full of teenagers, mostly strangers, knowing that over the course of the school year, I will have the opportunity to really get to know them.
I know I am not alone in this sentiment. This opportunity to connect with students in meaningful ways is what keeps educators coming back to the classroom each September. As many of us teachers prepare to return to a traditional classroom setting and schedule for the first time since the outset of the pandemic, it is essential that we remind ourselves why we love what we do. Even if you are excited or relieved to return to teaching full-time in a physical classroom, there is stress and often a sense of disorientation in any transition. Keeping in mind what kept you teaching even through a sudden shift to virtual or hybrid learning will help you transition back to a traditional learning environment.
Lately, I have been reflecting on what I love most about my job. I love the profound potential for deep connections with my students and the very real possibility of unexpected and serendipitous things happening in my classroom. Learning about my students—their lives, their dreams, their values—while we explore texts and ideas together feels like a great adventure to me. In the very best classes, there is a kind of positive energy that you feel when you walk into the room. It is like a secret club, complete with its own language of inside jokes, shared understandings, and a certain level of comfort, born of trust and simple affection.
There have been years when my own life has taken nearly every ounce of my energy and, in those times, school was a welcome respite, a place in which I not only found the pleasant distraction of doing work I enjoyed, but also the comfort and love of my colleagues and students. I will never forget a time last year a few days after my mother died. I had just flown in from the West Coast and had to get back to work after being gone for a week. I was sad and exhausted and holding myself together by a thread. At the end of first period, as students were filing out of my classroom and I was wondering how I was going to make it through the day, I was surprised to see one of my students—a shy student, who I didn’t know very well—walking toward my desk. As I looked up, they looked right into my eyes and in the most gentle, sympathetic way asked if they could please give me a hug. Of all the kindnesses that were extended to me during those sad days, this is the one that I think of most often. For me, it will always be a poignant reminder of the empathy and love that so often flows between teachers and students.
This fall, both students and teachers will be returning to a traditional classroom with various traumas stemming from their experiences with the pandemic, with the national protests against racial injustice and the events that triggered them, and with other, more personal events of the past year and a half. Building strong relationships with our students and fostering a sense of connection and compassion within our classrooms will be more important than ever. Students will also be dealing with the shift from virtual or hybrid learning to a full-time schedule in the school building, some more easily than others. As educators, we must make a special effort to extend empathy to our students and offer what love we have to give.
My students sometimes ask me if I get tired of this job or of teaching the same books over and over again. I always tell them the truth and it is this: the books may be the same, but I am not. The same can be said of this job. Every year, my classes are filled with 100+ new human beings, with whom I get to share time, stories, and ideas. Through reading and writing and conversation, I get to teach and learn about the world and my students and myself. Not only does every year feel different, but every day feels different. I feel different. It is exactly this that makes my job so compelling—and so sustainable. It is the dynamic nature of all these young, bright minds, the stories we read and write, and the ideas we explore, that fill me with such exhilaration—such hope. To cultivate in my students a curiosity about the world and the confidence and skills to navigate it in the best way possible is always my goal. Day after day, year after year, I use every bit of knowledge and skill I’ve acquired during this long career to try to see my students and, even more importantly, to help them to see themselves. Looking forward to a new school year that feels like a particularly fresh start, I cannot wait to meet my new students, this time in person. As you rest and rejuvenate this summer, I hope you, too, can remind yourself of what keeps you coming back year after year.
Suzanne Caines has been teaching high school English in public school settings in New Jersey for 34 years. She grew up on the West Coast, graduated from the University of Oregon and later earned a Master’s degree at Montclair State University, where she wrote her graduate thesis on using mindfulness and meditation to improve learning conditions in high school classrooms. She currently publishes a bi-weekly education blog on her website teachingandbeing.com. She resides in New York City with her husband and has one grown daughter and three grown stepchildren.