Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

‘I Miss So Much About My Job': A Teacher With Cancer Reflects on Her Years in the Classroom

By Johanna Rauhala — January 14, 2020 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Crates of books gather dust in the garage. Differentiation, writing workshop, restorative circles, cooperative learning—their spines and titles line up like a list of cities I’ve visited during my teaching life.

Another crate: binders full of old maps, poems, literature units I cobbled together from colleagues and online resources. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. Beowulf. The Outsiders.

In yet another: letters from kids and a wreath students bought me after my first year teaching. A holiday tree ornament. Photos of my classroom and bulletin boards. An awards ceremony picture. Workshop certificates. My master’s degree, framed.

A dried flower.

Gifts and memories. And now, a painful ending.

**********

I started my teaching career in 1995 at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill, Calif. I made a lot of mistakes those first few years, and if you’re a former student reading this, you have my apologies. Like many teachers, I felt overwhelmed and I struggled with organization. I spent late nights grading and planning, slept with worried dreams, and woke with a sense of never having done enough. I wouldn’t call those early years a pleasure. There were moments of joy, to be sure, but mostly there was fatigue. And paperwork. And always the question: “Am I doing this right?”

**********

The years passed. I grew to love my students, my colleagues, and the intellectual and emotional demands of the work. New research and trainings stretched my capacity as a teacher. I tried new strategies every year. Guest speakers and writers came to our class; my students published books, presented plays, went on outdoor education trips, attended museums. I tried to provide them with a rich, meaningful curriculum that helped them think, learn, and be more understanding and educated citizens of our world. I would like to think I became a better teacher.

**********

Before I knew it, 17 years were behind me, including some time off to finish my master’s and to raise our daughter. I’d become a coach, and this meant that I had the honor to work with first- and second-year teachers as they completed their credentials. This new role taught me to listen more deeply, to provide supportive feedback, and to see our profession with a wider, more panoramic lens. I observed, took notes, and listened as many new teachers expressed the same fears I’d had in those early days. Sometimes during our meetings, teachers wept. I write that with tremendous empathy. Sometimes we celebrated a student’s new understanding. On some days, beset with a new and perplexing problem, we sat in silence.

I grew to love this role, too—especially the process of seeing teacher growth. To witness the deepening professional practice and capacity of a colleague was incredibly fulfilling. It gave me hope for our profession, our children, and our future.

**********

But that future was stolen in late March 2016, when I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer. This was an aggressive and hard-to-treat subtype, with no available targeted therapies. The tumor was large, and cancer cells had spread to my lymph nodes.

This news came as a complete shock. I’d been running 5k and 10k races, eating mostly vegetarian foods, drinking tea, practicing yoga and meditation. The recipe for good health had been a checklist in our house, and we’d followed it closely. Broccoli and blueberries were dietary staples. And did I mention the spices that lit up our meals? Cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cayenne.

But my faith in a healthy lifestyle, like any faith, was based on the hope for immortality. And so, hearing my doctor say the word “cancer” tipped me into disbelief. It shattered my trust in the world and turned every day into a bargaining. Would I live to see my daughter graduate? Should I save for retirement? When my husband caught a cold, I went into a near-delirium of fear that he, too, would die.

Shards of my previous life formed a thicket of past tenses: was, had, been. I was healthy. I had been a teacher. I had a future.

I wasn’t safe.

**********

In the three years since then, I’ve had two recurrences, for a total of three rounds with cancer. Each recurrence has meant more chemotherapy, more surgery, and worse survival odds.

As I write this, the cancer has metastasized to my arm bone and to both lungs.

I am no longer working.

**********

It feels surreal to suddenly stay home. And I miss so much about my job. Little things. Surprising things. I miss teaching the fall of Rome. I miss our class mascot, a rubber chicken we named “Dinner,” soaring across the classroom during question-and-answer sessions. I miss raucous banter with my colleagues over the long lunch table, and peals of laughter at tales of lessons gone awry. I miss good book recommendations from coworkers, and inspiring, actionable professional development. I miss being part of a thoughtful, caring profession, and the deep contentment that comes from meaningful work.

I miss the sincere faces of last year’s students stopping by to say hi. I miss the whimsy of the class that renamed the class furniture, labeling the door “desk” and the sink “clock.” And I miss the moments when my students and I would crack up with laughter, like when they imitated my questions, or when they hid outside on April Fool’s Day. I miss, too, the somber silence when students studied the cruelty of the Crusades.

I miss reading the formative thoughts of young people and hearing them debate about politics, book characters, and life. I miss the role I had in moving them from awkward early adolescence into their futures as adults.

I loved and cherished these precious doors to connection, to opportunity. But they were abruptly closed. There was no easing into retirement, no slow denouement into those Golden Years.

**********

It’s morning and I’m back in the garage, sorting through the old books and dust.

No ashes here, not yet.

I have often asked myself how I will feel about my work when I look back. What would I wish I’d done differently?

And now the end of my teaching life is here, made all too real in stacks and crates, artifacts of a history I never wanted to leave so quickly. Grief washes over me.

I think of my colleagues back at work this morning, pushing the current of knowledge along, standing and talking and listening and questioning as much as they can. I feel lost now that that I’m no longer among them.

But I feel so honored to have been among them. I feel a deep connection with, and pride for, the commitment we teachers show to hope, growth, and the well of human knowledge.

And while I would have liked to change little things about my work here and there, I would not, dear colleagues, change my vocation.

Those would be my words to offer as I close the class door; they are the words I want to set free.

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