I often miss the nuances of relationships with other people, the unspoken communication that takes place between us. As an English/language arts teacher, I can feel the depth of Hamlet’s despair when he says, “To be or not to be,” but I cannot understand what my principal is referring to when he says, “Be the you that you needed when you were this age.”
This inability to understand the politics of the job can get in the way. The other teachers in the room are enraptured, clinging to my principal’s words as though they are profound and life affirming; I am incredulous.
I can’t pretend to understand. I have asked him “why” one too many times, and, recently, in a fit of frustration, he stated, “I want you to love your work and love the kids.” Why do I need to do anything other than what I am contractually obligated to do, to be anything other than what I went to school to be: a person who can assist students with learning to read better and write well? Which class did I miss that stated I needed to be someone other than a teacher—or is this what I missed when I failed to read between the lines?
I am a good teacher. I have a knack for helping students learn to express themselves succinctly through writing. I am not, however, any student’s favorite teacher. No letters will be written to me in years expressing how much my winning personality changed them. But I didn’t become a teacher to be anything other than a teacher. I became a teacher because I saw a need, not because I had a latent desire to nurture.
I reserve my nurturing for my personal life and my own children. My nurturing is for my nieces and nephews and my siblings. Reading stories about selfless teachers calling students from a hospital bed after surgery to check in doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me question my own sanity. Is this what teaching is? If you are a good teacher who also loves kids, I feel so happy for you. I can’t relate, but I honor this part of you.
Teaching is dominated by women, and there is a clearly stated expectation that women are to give endlessly and selflessly. I think it’s why so often teachers are made to feel guilty about wanting to separate the job from their own lives. “You are a woman,” society tells us. “You are supposed to want to give yourself.” If you die at your job, people will say that you died doing what you loved—who wouldn’t want to teach for nickels and then be found in the classroom after hours? Is there a more fulfilling way to go?
I don’t want to do that. I want to teach my students from 9 to 5 (or 7:40 to 3:40, as the case may be) and then I want to get off work. I want to be able to call my job that—a job—without facing a piercing glare from an administrator for not cheerfully sacrificing my personal time to grade papers.
I don’t remember what I needed at 13. I was hyperfocused on a boy with spaghetti-noodle legs who made my heart flutter every time his eyes skipped over me in the hall. What I do remember is not caring one iota about what my teachers thought or who they were. I definitely did not care whether or not they loved me. That probably comes from a place of privilege, but still, I did not become a teacher to be the savior for society’s ills. I took out loans and went to school like any other professional, and love did not come up once.
What I really need as a teacher is a distinct line between my profession and myself. I work as a teacher. Being a teacher is what I do professionally. It is what pays my bills. I need parents to know that it is their job to love their kids and my job is to teach them.
My doctor doesn’t love me, nor do my dentist or my therapist. They can work for me effectively—even better, I may argue—without the added unstated expectation that they feel deep unwavering affection for me. What’s more, I can have a good and meaningful relationship without love. I do not have to love everyone that I care for. I have not always loved everyone that I have cared for. It is only here in this profession that I am expected to.
What I need right now at 35 is for more of us teachers to stand up and proclaim, “I can be a good teacher and not love my job.” I am fulfilling a need and paying my bills. I have a student loan debt that must be repaid in cash every month. For that debt I received an education. It doesn’t have to be more than that. I shouldn’t have to give up parts of my soul, too.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as I Don’t Have to Love My Students To Be a Good Teacher