Be in the mess.

When I started out to be a teacher I had a very pretty picture in my head–my classroom was going to be organized and beautiful, my students would be smiling and deeply interested in what I had to say, and we would all be learning things about Spanish and life too. I would be changing lives on the daily and my students would love me always…or at least most of the time. Yes. I can hear the veteran teachers laughing as they read this, but I’m an idealist and this is what I planned to do.

I’ve been in a high school for about two and a half months now–teaching full time for about a month–and I can truthfully say that my class looks like my pretty picture maybe 5% of the time. The reality looks more like a cluttered desk, a bulletin board that was made in 15 minutes the day before it was due, a pack of sleepy and grumpy teenagers, and lessons that go as planned about half the time. It’s hard and I’m tired.

The reality of teaching is that it’s messy, but now I see why that’s expected. When it comes down to it I’m a messy person trying to do good in the lives of messy people. It’s going to be a messy process. For your reading pleasure, I’ve compiled a list of some of the better messy moments that help to illustrate the point:

  1. A five minute discussion on why I asked a student to take out his notebook. Complete with explanations of purpose and respect.
  2. Conversation with 15 year olds about things that 15 year olds should never have to experience. And then figuring out a way to motivate them to do their classwork afterwards.
  3. Lessons gone wrong. A lot.
  4. Class discussions about classroom community, group participation, and the importance of respecting each individual. Then having the same conversation three days later.
  5. Getting focused on the details of the job only to realize that I missed an important moment to help a student through a life struggle. Not good.
  6. Getting so focused on relationships and student lives that I lose some important papers with student grades. Big oops.
  7. Learning to the importance of thick skin in the face of high school pettiness.
  8. Realizing that the mistakes don’t go away after the first few weeks of practice.

My students are messy. They come from rough backgrounds and families that do more harm than good. They come from homes that lack food. They are teenagers trying to figure out who they are in the world. They are people desperately seeking a community, doing anything to stay apart of it, and not always making the best choices as a result. They are young adults with complex feelings and fears. And every day they come into my class and they bring the mess with them.

I am messy. I am a young student teacher who is still learning the ropes. I come with a great desire to do good in the lives of my students and not a lot of practical ideas of how to make that good happen. I am still learning the balance between Spanish lessons and life lessons. I deal with students that do not like me, and I am hurt when they show that dislike. I make mistakes every day. And every day I come into class and I bring the mess with me.

This week I have been tired…really, really tired. I feel the weight of the mistakes and struggling relationships. I feel the pressure to continue to love my students well in spite of that. I’ve dealt with the very real insecurities that come from such a conflict. I am worn, and I am a little sad when I think of how far my classes are from that pretty picture I once created.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure where this post was going to go once I started typing, but as I sit here and reflect on my classroom mess, I am starting to see how it might actually be a good thing. What I mean is this: if all my students were perfect and I was perfect, what would be the point of teaching at all? Would there really be a need for intentional development if they just took every life lesson, accepted it, and applied it? Why would I be going through the whole student teacher process if I wasn’t going to use it as a time to make mistakes and learn from them?

Are we even recognizing our own true humanity if we don’t also recognize the mess that comes with being human? Rather than dwelling on an idealistic picture, why not dive into the mess of working with other humans? It’s hard and tiring, but it’s also real. I guess it’s also why I signed up for this in the first place. I signed up to be in the mess.