I started teaching 11 years ago, walking out of a college experience filled with hobbies like reading horrible found poems about tragic events. I landed my dream job in my first year, teaching at an arts magnet school full of weird kids with brilliant brains.
I’d spent years writing essays no one would read and probing research that would never help me to get there, working and reflecting and dreaming of all the ways I was going to be one of those teachers: the natural and inspiring who wore stylish sport coats, whose classroom was a sacred space of literature, of rebellion, of learning.
But nobody told me how hard it was going to be. The truth is, teaching is a goddamn shit-show, a goddamn glorious shit-show, even when it nearly kills you.
So I wrote this book, It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching, coming out April 25 on the University of Minnesota Press. It’s the book I wish someone had handed me when I was starting. Or maybe that time in my third year when I almost quit. Or the time that kid threatened to shoot me.
The stories below are excerpts, picked to highlight just how hard it can be, and just how incredibly worth it teaching is.
The threat against me
On Monday night I was sitting on my couch and watching some game. It was late and well past my bedtime when I got a call from my principal. He told me there had been a gun threat against the school. My name was mentioned.
I hung up, opened another beer, went back to the game. My team won, so all things considered, it was a pretty good night.
On Tuesday, they gathered staff and told everyone about the threat. The teachers who knew I was the target gave me weird looks throughout the meeting. They wanted to know about armed security and locked doors. When the meeting ended, I went down the block and bought myself a cookie. It was pretty good, still a little warm.
On Friday, my principal said I had to decide if I wanted to press charges or not. I didn’t.
He said I should read the email with the threat against me. It was pretty specific about the bullet caliber that was being wished through my skull. The student said something about how it would be awesome if I got shot in the head.
My principal asked me what I thought. I told him I disagreed and thought it would not be awesome at all if I got shot in the head. I left then, because it was lunchtime, and I had pizza. Also, I struggled to breathe and thought it would be a good day to go home and lie down, but I didn’t.
No matter how much I liked to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, how much I tried to invalidate the threat, the intention of the student, and the ability of the student to carry out that threat, I was sincerely fucked with.
On the same day the student made the original threat, he also said in a meeting that I was one of his favorite teachers, a “chill” guy. A week later, that student, banned from the premises, sent me a Facebook friend request.
I’ve felt things like this before. Since we’re all filled with so much sloppy human emotion, and since school has us often careening off walls and into each other like a pinball machine with a few hundred balls going at once, things go wrong.
There are times that people hate you, or at least act very convincingly like they hate you. You may find out because things are posted online, or a complaint is made, or, most often, because a student is looking you dead in the face and tells you they hate you. It doesn’t feel awesome.
Ice Cream, Whiskey, Ice Cream
When school gets hard, more and more teachers seem to be sick, which means more sub jobs than subs, which means school gets even harder.
One time, this meant combining my class with another for three days. I was left, woefully outnumbered, to do my best.
The kids weren’t really that bad. The kids were kids, middle schoolers who talked a little too much and didn’t always stay on topic. And I could not handle it.
My armor did not last three days. My armor did not last past lunch. By the third day, I quit. There was nothing, nothing in the world that was worth putting up with the awful things about teaching.
What pushed me over? A kid told me to “chill out.” Chill out? Did he see what I was going through? Kids who forgot their pencil again. Kids talking during the movie. Kids leaving without asking to go to the bathroom.
Chill out? This is the goddamn apocalypse!
I probably hit 60 miles an hour before I left the parking lot. My colleagues questioned, legitimately, whether or not I’d be back the next day.
I made it home. I had ice cream, then whiskey, then ice cream. (I’m going to go ahead and name that a Teacher Sandwich.)
I told my wife about all the awful things that happened that day, and she did her best to not make a face that said, “That doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal,” which made me think about how maybe some of those things weren’t a big deal.
The next day at school, a student found me in the hallway and handed me a wristband that said “Rad” on it. She found it at the bus stop. As I walked into class, a student saw it and asked where I got it. “Jess found it at the bus stop.”
“A bus stop? Dude, gross. It probably has hooker spit all over it.”
I don’t appreciate the disparaging of sex workers, but something about the specificity and the surprise of hearing the phrase “hooker spit” made me completely lose it. In a good way.
Because kids are amazing and awful and hilarious. I know that. And I forget that. And they remind me. And then I’m back in.
Your Backpack Smells Like Phish
When I taught eighth grade, I often organized the graduation celebration. There was an hour-long arts performance, speeches, diplomas. There was a choir, a band, an orchestra. There was a reception with cake, powdered lemonade in giant orange coolers, three million pictures, and seven million side hugs. There was honest-to-god sobbing.
In exchange for organizing, I was often allowed the privilege of avoiding some end-of-the-year stuff I’d rather not do, like watch musicals. I have never watched a musical — performed by kids or adults — and not wanted it to end.
So near the end of one year, the students were staging the modern retelling of some story I didn’t care about anyway. I got to sit in the hallway.
As I was shepherding kids into the theater, I grabbed a couple of backpacks, backpacks being the harbingers of hot Cheetos and cell phones and all other things that get in the way of sincere art.
I sat on the floor with a laptop and started some comparison sheet-cake shopping for the graduation. I noticed a distinct smell coming from the backpack next to me. The smell, most familiar from my days going to Phish shows (I don’t want to talk about it), and from the moments just before my friend got kicked out of our freshman dorm (he’d rather I not talk about it), was unmistakably illegal.
I grabbed the bag and went to the office. “I’m about to find some weed,” I told our assistant principal, “and I’d rather not find it alone.”
Weed was found, and the student was retrieved from the play. Bringing the bag to the office removed me from responsibility, which was nice, but also removed me from control over what happened next.
While sitting in the office, the student was grilled (with real, actual anger and scariness) by an administrator who seemed intent on cracking a drug ring that did not exist. She kept signaling me to join in on the berating, and I tried to speak up in defense of the kid. Way too late.
The cops were called and they did some more scary yelling. The kid was sent home. He would not be allowed back in our building. Ever.
We were three weeks from the end of school. This student would simply be considered finished with middle school and sent on his way. He would not be welcome for graduation, for the final dance, for any of the final arts performances.
Other teachers and I threw fits, tried to at least let the kid at come to the graduation. Nope. As a fruitless show of protest, we read his name at graduation after being told not to.
It was bullshit. And I felt like it was my fault.
I’m still not sure what I should have done differently. For a moment, I thought it would have been relatively amusing to take the weed and flush it, but not say a word. He would know I knew, and I would know he knew that I knew, but we would leave it at that. I’m pretty sure I could get fired for that, though, and also pretty sure I should be fired for that, so it’s a less-than-perfect option.
I thought about different administrators I could have taken the bag to, people who may have handled it differently, or ways I could have tried to keep the cops out of it. I could have just ignored it.
I’m not sure what’s right. I’m not sure what I would do now. My best guess is that I would just let it go.
Sometimes “Bitch” Is the Right Answer
This was the intro to the term dehumanization for my 10th graders.
We were reading a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about two women, a Christian and a Muslim, trapped in a room during a religious riot. Dehumanization is the type of concept that takes months to really land with students. I wanted the kids to kick around the idea of humanity, of what it means to be recognized as fully human, and the way that humanity can be minimized, dismissed, or removed. It is many big thoughts.
After giving a very simple definition of dehumanization, I opened the floor for examples.
Yep. That’s always the first example. It gives me a chance to say my thing, which is, “No human has ever purposely hurt another human.” Which is to say, for any of the harms in human history to have occurred, someone had to be viewed as less than human.
It’s something I throw out over and over, because I think it’s the smartest thing I say.
Then there’s a pause. “Bitch.”
Bitch is almost always the second example students come up with. Their why is almost always the same too: “Because it means female dog.” (See? Because dogs aren’t human.)
I often let kids kick and claw their way through bitch for a while. They figure out that when someone is called a bitch, it really has nothing to do with dogs. And they come with some really interesting definitions.
One group arrived at “an un-ideal woman.” Another expanded that to “an un-ideal person of your gender,” which is kick-a-chair insightful. This year a student said, “A woman who isn’t acting like a man wants her to.”
Bam. Kids are smart.
But those come at the ends of long conversations. On this day the conversation took a sharp turn, into the “I don’t think people should be offended by that” discussion. That line is often pushed by a person sitting in privilege, and is a necessary piece in unearthing the difference between speaking to people and speaking for people.
But when it’s said by someone named something like Jiggy or Boff — someone you’d call the sidekick in an ’80s movie — I didn’t feel like I had that kind of time. So I did something dumb.
This student, sure of his world-dominating brilliance in a way males often seem to be (cough-me-cough), began to speak for the women in the room, explaining that they shouldn’t be offended by the word bitch.
Another student, Liz, fierce and well-armed in a way that females have to be (though never are in the movies that dudes like Jiggy are in), let him have it, calling him out on his privilege, on the misogyny implicit in a man telling women what they should think and why.
“You both have good points,” I said, “and both should listen to each other, and I totally get how it seems like the intent of what you say should matter and be important, and there are totally situations where bitch is used where it is acceptable, and a really nuanced conversation about this would allow for our ability to see things differently, and really all this needs to be later, later, and we’ll get there, I promise, but we can’t get there now, but sometime, for sure, we’ll get there.”
So essentially I said: “Wordsy words words, boys get to say what they want, angry girls get shut down, I’m important, blahblahblah, look at my stupid sport coat.”
I know all this because Liz and I both calmed down enough to talk in the hallway. “You’re supposed to be the teacher who doesn’t do that and you did that,” she said. “You were silencing my justifiable anger in favor of the comfort of the kid who just said a bunch of offensive shit.”
She was super right, and I was being an asshole. I let her know by saying, “You’re super right, and I’m being an asshole.”
Sometimes I swear at school and nothing bursts into flames.
It turned out that Liz had seen a lot of things along the way, things I had screwed up, things that had centered male voices in the room and allowed some pretty awful things to be said in the name of honoring perspectives.
She had let a lot of them slide, or rather swallowed them and let me keep thinking I was being super great when I was really perpetuating a lot stuff I thought I was working against. I was the best bet she had during her day, and she had been burned.
She let it all out there in the hallway. She cut me off at the knees and told me that I thought I had this radically social justice classroom when, really, I just used the words a lot.
Then she said, “Okay. Thanks for listening to that,” and left.
The Gatorade Threatens Us All
One year, my school went through renovations in the “looks like a nice hotel” range. We were very protective of our pretty new space, and there was no confusion that teachers were to be held personally (and spiritually) responsible for any stains that might develop in the course of housing hundreds of teenage bright ideas.
So it was that I reacted strongly to a student bringing (gasp!) and opening (gasp! gasp!) an energy drink (ick, but whatever!) in my class.
If I remember correctly, I walked up to him, snatched the drink from his hand, and told him I’d be throwing it out as soon as I could find a trash can. (It’s the little things that get missed in renovations.)
His response was stronger than my response and involved some very gracious (if strongly delivered) invitations to a power battle along the lines of, “No you fucking won’t.”
So, you know, things were going great.
We went back and forth in front of the class for two or three comments before the first day of teacher school training kicked into gear, and I thought that, just maybe kinda, it was a bad idea to be doing this in front of an entire classroom.
I told the student to wait for me outside, and he offered another gracious, tempting invitation: “I’ll just go to the office.”
I hate sending kids to the office. In the moment, I had trouble remembering why I hate sending kids to the office. Doing so would have meant the end of a conflict, a quieter classroom, and an angry student who was someone else’s problem.
Then I remembered, for all those reasons, and for the fact that it sets up a really screwy power-discipline dynamic that I don’t like, I don’t send kids to the office unless violence is involved or threatened.
He stood in the hallway for the minute it took me to get the class directed on whatever we were working on next, and holy shit, you should’ve seen that kid’s face by the time I got out there.
Had I been seeing straight, I would’ve seen a hundred interactions like this written on this kid’s face. I would have seen a history as a black male in schools full of teachers who didn’t trust and respect him in the automatic way they do the white girls.
He was equal parts entirely unsurprised and furious and humiliated. Had I been seeing straight, I would have recognized that. But in that moment, and with that kid, and on that day, I made it all about me.
My half-yelling at a kid who wanted to punch me or cry or both started with my telling him all the ways that he was wrong. At some point, I’m pretty sure I pointed to a couch and said that it was worth $3,000, and pointed to myself and said, “It’s my job to make sure that couch is this nice next year and five years from now.” Right, because that’s my job.
I said the phrase, “We have a school to run here.” Jesus.
Thank god I said that bullshit phrase. The bullshittyness of it snapped me out of the tirade I was on, reminded me that it was not in fact my job to protect furniture or to run the school, and most especially, it was not my job to make this kid feel awful.
So I stopped. I took a breath. I apologized.
You should’ve seen this kid’s face. I apologized for yelling, for attacking, and I apologized for not giving myself a chance to listen. I asked what was getting him so upset, what got him so upset in the classroom.
It took a few minutes to bring him along on my sudden change of direction. The sheer tonnage of emotional momentum of a teenager is difficult to maneuver quickly. I made him sure that I wanted to really hear what he had to say, made him sure that I wasn’t looking for another angle to yell at him.
He told me I embarrassed him. Of course I did, and of course I didn’t realize it.
Of course it was embarrassing to sit in class and have a teacher come and take a drink away from you, rub in the fact that there was nothing he could do about it, make a fantastic display of who was powerful and who was not. What is more stupid-teachery than passing judgment or punishment on someone without giving them a chance to talk?
This was my first year in high school, and it didn’t occur to me that the tough-looking black boy could be humiliated by some little thing (because of my own shitty anti-blackness, really, and some idea deep in my head — backed up by a bunch of research — that white people consider black people less able to feel pain). All these things fed that moment, and it’s hard as hell to admit it, and recognizing it doesn’t make it a single bit better or more excusable.
It didn’t occur to me that thousands and thousands of these little humiliations were what made this boy try to look and act tough. I knew these things, but knowing them at a workshop and using them in the hallway when someone told you to fuck off are two different things.
Teaching well is a whole lot of thinking, and then thinking, and then getting it wrong, and then reflecting, and then trying again. As a general rule, I make fewer mistakes when I remember that kids are people.
He talked about how he felt in the classroom when I took his drink away, when I talked to him like he was an awful kid for having a drink. I listened. I apologized for specific steps along the way so he knew I was serious (because “I’m sorry you’re upset” never cuts it).
I talked about a lot of good things I had seen from him that went by without comment the first time. He listened. He came back from the brink, and so did I. We left it somewhere around the neighborhood of, “Huh, that wasn’t the best. Let’s not do that again.”
From that point forward, he went from a D to an A student, and I never had a single problem with him. In fact, he went on to be president of three colleges at once and discovered a hidden city of unicorns during a hospital-building charity trip to a continent he discovered.
No. Not really. But most books and stories from people who have left teaching follow a pretty similar and ridiculous structure: (1) student is failing or struggling in some giant way and usually their parent has, like, been eaten by wolves or something on the kid’s birthday; (2) teacher says the exact right thing to the student; (3) student is all the way better forever and ever; 4) teacher never makes a mistake again.
Actually, we had some problems here and there during the rest of the year, but nothing we couldn’t handle. He knew I respected him. I really respected him. I got respect back, and when I really needed to, I could get him to try harder on a paper or help another kid out.
He was a 5 to 10 percent better student for me. I was a 5 to 10 percent better teacher for him. Better is better than worse.
I Quit, Again
I quit last week. I didn’t quit the time I had to break up three fights in one day. Nor the time a parent called to tell me she wasn’t sure her kid had learned anything in my class. Nor the time that one guy I worked with sent me a three-page email about all the things he thought I was doing wrong. Nor any of the next 20 times that same guy sent essentially that same email. Nor the time I switched to a new school and that same guy contacted a coworker to tell her to make my life hell that year. Nope. Kept wanting to quit, didn’t quit.
Every time I’m about to quit, something amazing happens. Every time I’m so close to finding anything else to do all day, a student shows me why I need to stay.
Last Tuesday, I was as close to quitting as I’ve ever been. I spent my prep hour updating my resume and scrolling through job listings for any job that would let me pee when I needed to.
On Wednesday, I was reading an article with my class (“From Lynching Photos to Michael Brown’s Body: Commodifying Black Death”). At the end of the day one of my students took over our room.
For 20 minutes, this student spoke truth about being a black male, about the fear and assumptions he feels increasingly as he gets older, about his passions to succeed, to “live greatness,” how often he is made to feel like shit, and how often he is told he isn’t shit. He spoke with anger, with pride, with intelligence and hope, and with a broad perspective and understanding of our world.
It was, after a decade of teaching, among the most impressive things I’ve ever heard.
After class, I sat in silence with my student-teacher. One of the most powerful and continual experiences as a teacher is to be really taught. No book, no training, no group has pushed me to grow more than my students have. Nothing has come close to the sense of awe, the inspiration, and the energy they give me.
My job is at the front lines of everything fucked about our country. My students are parts of some of the most at-risk populations in America, are living in systems that work to keep them poor and oppressed. I don’t jump to use words like oppression, but, shit, on so many days the word doesn’t seem strong enough.
The truth is that I have gained so much from my students, and often because they are different from me. They make me and my life better.
My students are beautiful, even when they’re being god-awful. My school is a place of such power and inspiration, and also the reason I think too much and sleep too little. A job that isn’t a roller coaster sounds nice, but incomplete.
I’m staying. I’m starting over, ready to learn more and excited to teach again.
I’m not staying because my kids need me. I’m not staying to save anyone. Anyone who thinks they need to save black kids doesn’t know enough black kids, or Native, or Latina/o, or immigrant kids.
I’m staying for the honor of being there as they live greatness, for the honor of supporting when they need it and getting out of the way when they don’t. I’m staying so I can watch them change schools for the better, so I can see what great things the generation of teachers not raised on color blindness can do when they have classrooms, departments, schools all their own.
I’m so tired and so full of energy. I am frustrated and inspired. I’m a teacher, and that is why I teach.
Excerpts appear by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching by Tom Rademacher (April 2017). Copyright 2017 by Tom Rademacher. All rights reserved.
Tom Rademacher will be reading from his book, It Won’t Be Easy, at 7 p.m. on May 9 at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-822-4611.
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