I love to teach. I get to stand up every day in front of the classroom and talk about a subject I love to a bunch of funny kids. I can hang up colorful posters with inspirational quotes, have an endless supply of gel pens, have the world’s most post-its, and write on a whiteboard with ten different colorful markers. I use these markers to draw color-coded diagrams of cells and microscopes and DNA and everything in-between. I have hanging star lights surrounding the border of one half of my room. I display the amazing work of students’ cell cycle posters all throughout the walls. I give them stickers when they get an answer right (or just because) and they put them on their folders. I joke with them, I high-five them in the halls, and they occasionally eat lunch with me. I genuinely enjoy their presence. I genuinely enjoy my career.
But if that was the same every day it would be too good to be true. Some days kids just don’t want to do anything. They don’t like my jokes. They are tired from being up all night. They dislike my quirky personality. Asking them to put their phones away results in a, “Fuck off” and twenty minutes writing a referral and bringing it to administration. Telling them to lower their voice when they are screaming in class results in a, “This is B.S.” and, “You just want something to complain about.” Asking them to focus on their schoolwork gets the response, “Oh my god stop bothering me.” And if it’s an especially “difficult” day for them, they will walk out of class saying, “This class fucking sucks ass.” Or they will be escorted out while saying, “This class is stupid and your grading system is dumb.”
Every day I get a comment like that from multiple students. All of the (real) examples above have happened in a single month. I stay calm. I try to prevent a situation from escalating to that point, but most times it comes out of nowhere. Once the disrespect happens, so does the referral. And once that happens I get the task of contacting home to notify the parents. I may or may not get a good response. It’s always a risky thing to do.
Teachers are told to focus on the positives because the negatives will weigh you down. I totally agree. So I never take work home with me (which means staying at school until almost dinner some nights) and I try not to check my email. And with most teachers that works to an extent but for many teachers, it can’t. Why? Because many teachers, including myself, suffer from clinical depression.
Some background on my history with mental illness: I was diagnosed with OCD at 6, but early intervention helped eliminate most symptoms by age 8. At 12 I was diagnosed with depression and have been on and off different types of medications for 14 years. I have been on medication for anxiety for three years. In college, I spent time in a hospital for suicide-related thoughts. Last year the person I was supposed to be with forever suddenly broke up with me by text and never spoke to me again – resulting in PTSD. Despite mental illness, I never let it bring my life down. It could bring my day down, maybe my week, but I always knew I would persevere and graduate college and become a high school science teacher.
At first, I thought that mental illness would prevent me from being the best teacher I could be. However, it has given me so many positives. I am intuitive and can sense when a student is suffering. I can pull them aside and they see my genuine care for them. Countless times this school year I have had kids come into my room just to cry, and vent, and try to be heard. So I am there to listen. I’m empathetic and sensitive, and a student going through the loss of a loved one or their pet dog breaks my heart for them. I listen. I love my students because I appreciate everything they have gone through.
But sometimes, kids don’t recognize what the teachers have gone through. And that’s when empathy is lost. The kids say hurtful comments and project their frustration on me, the teacher. They are mad at themselves for forgetting their homework, so they tell me my class is pointless and dumb. They’re fighting with their boyfriend via text and I ask them to put the phone away, so they tell me to back off. They want to goof around with their friends but I stop them and say there are lessons I need to teach so they respond, “You just want something to complain about.”
At the end of the day I know I did a good job. I used my mental illness to connect with students. But I also replay the negatives that were told to me today: I’m annoying, I should fuck off, my class sucks ass, I complain too much, I yell at them for everything, my grading system is stupid. And then I keep replaying these messages. I wonder what I did to make them think that way. I wonder if I was too harsh or asked too much of them. But the truth is none of it was my fault. But having mental illness makes it real. And because I’m being told these things are real, and my mind is processing that just as literally, I am at the tipping point of depression. I go home every day with depression.
My most valued characteristic is empathy. It’s the ability to connect with others without having to go through something similar yourself. One day I had a student talk back to me and I apologized for not being clear with instructions for the assignment because the night before I was in the ER for a car accident. The student said she was sorry, that she didn’t know. But no one should have to tell someone what bad things they’ve gone through to get empathy and respect. You just have to treat them as if they’ve already told you that they’ve gone through a bad thing. Because everyone has. Everyone. Including teachers.
Even if I spend the night crying I go to work the next day with as much energy as the day before. And I take out my colored markers and write the plans on the board. But in the back of my head, I’m replaying those comments. And while I’m replaying them, a student enters the class and says, “Ugh this class is so boring.” And I want to turn to him and say so much, like how I spent three hours after school making the cool assignment for today. Or how my grandmother passed away last month. Or how I had to find a new place to stay when my ex broke up with me so now I live an hour away in my parents’ basement. I want to say I had to do my makeup in the car because my alarm went off too late, and I cried it off on the ride here anyway.
I want to say I’m sad. And I want to say I’m sad because I have depression and it’s weighing me down more and more with the emotional abuse that I deal with every day from a handful of students. And how I’m just not okay.
But I don’t say that. I can’t say that. So I say, “Take a seat everyone, and we will get started after I take attendance.”