Why I am a High School Special Education Teacher
I am currently sitting in the Cardiologist's office waiting for my Echo-cardiogram. I am pretty sure there is no one else in this office under the age of 70. My fragile ego is seriously bruised. For crying out loud, I am fit and I take pride in my healthy life-style. This totally sucks! Let me just say, I have had a hell of a last two weeks topped off by a seven hour trip to the emergency room last night. The truth is, I have had a hellish two months! Let me introduce myself.
I am a public high school special education teacher. My job is hard. Like chain gang hard. Like getting sucker punched in the gut hard. Like having chest pains at work hard! For 30 years my alarm clock has gone off at 5AM and somehow I manage to drag myself out of bed. Some days I pop up ready to greet my students with a warm smile. Some days I want to pull the covers over my head to smother my tears from exhaustion. So, why you may ask, am I still a Special Education teacher?
I think I have boiled it down to five reasons.
1. My husband makes me do it! I kick and scream and tell him there is no way I can face it all. The paperwork is too much. There are too many kids. There are too many cell phones. There is too many and too much ... of... well, pretty much everything! Each day he hands me my lunch and drop kicks me out the door.
2. I need a paycheck to keep my puppies living the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. Moxie needs a big yard to run in and a new ball and Frisbee every other week. As many of my readers may know from my previous stories, he is quite the bad dog and he really can't help that he plays hard and destroys truck loads of toys. Princess Shelby requires the luxury of soft pillows, beds and couches and quality puppy treats.
3. I'm a creature of habit. I'm not good at change. I have not changed my hair or make-up since 1982 and I have not yet changed the 40-year-old decrepit wallpaper in my house because you know...change and me are not friends.
4. My work family freaking rocks! Teachers in general are compassionate, kind, wise people. My friends, building administration and colleagues at work are no exception.
5. The final and most important reason that I drag myself to a job that could possibly be knocking me face first into my own grave is that teaching is my calling! I like making a difference and inspiring young people. I like when a student's eyes light up when they see me. I like when a kid says ,"Can I have my weekend hug Mrs. Wertz?" I like hearing a kid proudly announce "I just read my first novel on my own Mrs. Wertz! " or "Holy cow, maybe you should double check this Missus, cause I just got an A on a math test." I love when they leave me sweet notes and inside jokes on my white board! I get the giggles when the class has a "Cliff and Norm" style debate over which super villain is the coolest. There is no better feeling than a group of 17-year- olds arguing over which one of them is the teacher's favorite. I enthusiastically collect every detail about the school dance. I become the World's Best Cheerleader as I encourage them in their quest to find their first part-time job. I become the World's Best Listener as I concentrate on the story of the hunting trip a student took with their Grandpa. And advice? Boy do I love to give advice on everything from what tattoo they should/more often shouldn't get, to what subject they should major in if they go to college. Teaching school is colorful, energetic and never-ever boring! I think it is obvious to anyone that knows me, that despite my increasing exhaustion, I love the relationships and connections I have been able to build with my students over the past 30 years.
A few weeks ago:
A few weeks ago on a typical Saturday morning as I was entering the gym a smiling man in his early 40s walked past me, "Hey Miss E. How ya doing?" He asked, and then to the man beside him he declared, "That was my favorite teacher!" A couple of minutes later a large athlete looking man in his late twenties waved from the free weight area to get my attention, "Hi Mrs. Wertz!" he yelled across the gym. Warming up on the treadmill, I walked beside a now fellow teacher that once-upon-a-time had been one of my students. These enthusiastic greetings are very much a typical experience for me wherever I go. I might be walking through the Mall and I get a bear hug from behind accompanied by a, "I miss you Mrs. Wertz,” or I will be sitting down to dinner at the Family Restaurant and a toddler is thrown into my arms as I meet one of my former student's children. I rarely go anywhere where I don't run into an eager human wanting to tell me all about their newest life adventure. Last week as I trudged along on the treadmill I had a major epiphany; I am currently the teacher at my High School who has been there the longest. I think that makes me a part of it's very foundation. I am part of its past! I am a part of its history and a part of the memory that hundreds of people living in my community have. It is actually a pretty amazing and powerful feeling! Somehow I have to keep going. I never have been, and never will be a quitter. I have to find a way to combat my exhaustion and fuel my energy and passion.
Many Years Ago:
About 15 years ago I received an email from a student that I had not heard from since she had graduated 6 years previously. It was a heartfelt note explaining to me that she had become a Youth Pastor. She wanted me to know that I had inspired her because I was the only teacher that she had never seen lose their temper. Since I am a hot tempered redhead I had to think long and hard about this statement. After some serious reflection I realized it was in fact true. Although I had moments of stress and frustration I had never once lost my temper in front of my students. Of all of the thank you notes and kind messages I have received over the years, this one was one of the most special. What an honor to have a student remember me in this way. Unfortunately, I can't claim that I have maintained this temper restraint record.
Almost two decades ago I received a phone call from a newly crowned and very excited Miss Pennsylvania. I remember this conversation like it was yesterday. "Hi Miss E! I want you to know I just won Miss Pennsylvania and I thanked you in my platform speech...You made me feel like it was okay to have a learning disability. You never made me feel stupid. In fact, somehow you made me feel like a learning disability was a cool thing." Twenty years later, the memories of this phone call can still warm my heart. I am not sure teaching can get more rewarding than being thanked publicly in front of a television audience.
My most powerful teaching moment occurred recently. Over the past five years I have worked with a family of four incredibly sweet sisters. During the summer break their mother passed away and the girls were uprooted and sent to live with their father. My heart hurt as I searched for a way to comfort them. I decided I would have a cookout in their honor. I invited all of their favorite teachers to my parent's in-ground pool. My fellow teachers supported it and came! The girl's Aunts helped me to arrange the surprise. My parents even jumped in to help. My Mother was a spectacular hostess and my Father managed the grill. These four grief stricken girls laughed, played games, ate lots of yummy food, had races across the pool and jumped off of the diving board for hours. At the end of the afternoon the girls echoed the same sentiment; it was the best day of their life! On top of this, each of my colleagues expressed how special the afternoon was to them. No other career would allow me to experience Win/Win moments like this.
Over the years many of my students have gone on to defy the limits society has placed upon them. Five of my students have become Special Education Teachers. Two have joined Hollywood's elite producing movies. One has become a successful musician and another a very financially successful accountant. I have had a Blue-Chip football recruit publicly thank me in in his acceptance speech. Countless others are mechanics, electricians, cosmetologists, chefs and construction workers! Daily I encounter smiling custodians, sales clerks, and landscapers that have sat in my classroom. Many of my best students have joined the Military. A few years ago I turned on the TV to view one of my former students placing a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier. I have attended countless graduation parties where I felt like the guest of honor. I have received the most genuine hugs of my life dressed as an elf, delivering Christmas presents to struggling families in my school district. I have a collection of Senior Letters from students thanking me for being the teacher that had the biggest impact on them throughout their school years. Memories of these amazing experiences could go on and on...
Tomorrow and the day after:
I am unsure of what the outcome of my Echo-cardiogram and stress test will be. I would be lying if I said I am not scared. I can't help but wonder if the Doctor will pull me out of work due to stress. I'm not sure I want that, but I know for sure I don't want to have a heart attack and die on the floor of my classroom. I suspect these cardiac tests will reveal that my heart is strong, but I also feel that my emergency room visit is supposed to serve some sort of warning or purpose. I think maybe society may need to take better care of its middle-aged overworked teachers. I believe with certainty that my former students would want that for me!
Ayn Rand in her Objectivism may disagree, but I believe that I must muddle through the current chaos that is my life and remind myself that my work matters, and that the majority of my students have adored and appreciated me; even on the days that I may have been a relentless annoying nag. I must remember my purpose. I want to make the world a better place. I want to make a difference. I want to be part of the solution.
I also need to remind myself that thirty years ago I may have been a young, adorable, idealistic and energetic teacher, but now I am Tradition, History, Wisdom, Structure, Security, Safety and Compassion; and that is so much more!
Are you a teacher? Feel free to share a rewarding moment with me...