My classroom is quiet.
Today was the last day of the school year, and I’m sorting through papers and materials—attempting to save only what is necessary. But I hold on tight because what if. What if I need it next year? Or the next?
What if I change my mind and teach Frankenstein again? (Good news, juniors…I won’t.) What if I need that one page out of that one workbook from 2005? What if my computer crashes and I loose all my files and I need that hardcopy?
Those aren’t the only what-ifs I’m asking.
I also find myself haunted by the hard questions. The painful and guilt-ridden ones.
You see, the faces of some students haunt the classroom of my heart. Not the scary ghost-story kind. But rather those who are the subjects of my did-I-do-enough questions.
I think of S. The third grader my second year of teaching. The one I didn’t know how to teach. The one from a crazy, broken home who could be sweeter than lemonade one second while he bounced and flitted and yelled and screamed and never listened the next. The one I gave up on because I was out of ideas. I think of S., and I’m filled with shame.
I think of T. The eighth grader who called me a b!#*&. The one so angry at the world he carried violence in his fists. The one expelled because my discipline referral for his spewed word was the very last one he was allowed to get. I didn’t know. And I think…if only I hadn’t written him up. Maybe he wouldn’t be in jail today?
I think of C. The junior girl filled high with entitlement. The one who looked down her nose at me, sighing big with sarcastic eye rolls. The one who showed up for her AP exam and never wrote a single word or bubbled a single letter, knowing her score affected me. I think of C and wonder if I stayed angry with her too often.
It’s not that I think I can save students. Or that I see myself as some sort of high-and-mighty teacher able to fix all the problems of those I teach.
Neither is possible. I know that.
But it doesn’t keep me from wondering if I did enough to help them. Or if my actions hurt them.
Every year I ask the what-ifs…
Was I as kind as I could have been to the kid who never stops talking? Did I handle that discipline situation correctly or was I too nice about it? Was my class too hard? Was it too easy? Did I require their best? All the time? Did I give my best? All the time?
Truth is, I never close the door on a school year feeling like I did all I could.
I think about the lessons I could have put more effort into. The papers I could have spent more time grading. The days I could have been more prepared for their possible questions. The days I could have kept them better engaged.
All the times I could have done more, more, more.
I know I’m not the only teacher who feels this way. And you don’t have to teach to understand the questions of what if and did I do enough?
Reflection is good if it spurs us towards change. But when reflection beats us black and blue, grinding us down under the heavy weight of guilt? We can’t move forward.
And I want to move forward. Every year.
I want S to remind me never to give up. I want T to remind me how deep my students hurt, how much they need my prayers, and how sometimes consequences are out of my control. I want C to remind me that behind every arrogant façade, there is a brokenness needing my compassion, not my anger.
I always want to improve—to be a master learner of my teaching craft.
And how I reflect on the year will determine if I move forward. Do I bury myself under the weight of unmanageable guilt? Or do I take sand paper to the rough edges of the year?
And in the process? I must remember some edges can’t be smoothed over. There are some things out of my control. Some students I’ll never reach. Some failures unpreventable.
I’m learning there will always be more I could do, say, or teach. Nothing will be enough to ensure a perfect year.
Because bottom line? Life isn’t neatly wrapped in red ribbon.
So how I respond to my what-ifs is really a question of whether or not I will allow in grace.
Grace to remember the year is done. Grace to realize I finished well, despite the imperfections. Grace to forgive myself for my mistakes.
Reflect, my dear friends. Reflect and move forward. Refuse guilt and fling wide your arms for Grace.
And the most beautiful stain-glassed Grace for the teacher?
Beginning anew in August.