As man is the highest being on earth, it follows that the vocation of teacher is among the highest known to him. To properly teach it to enduce man’s potential and latent greatness, to discover and develop the noblest, highest and best that is in him. In view of this fact, no man whose business it is to teach should ever allow himself to feel that his mission is mean, inferior, or circumscribed. In my estimation, neither politics nor religion present to us a calling higher than this primary business of unfolding and strengthening the powers of the human soul. It is a permanent vocation.
—Frederick Douglass, “On the Blessings and Liberty of Education”
To my fellow teachers:
As you find time to read this, I imagine that you are tired, your feet likely sore, but your heart must be full because you have spent the day working with young people. Still, you find time to think about your students.
Maybe you wonder if you said the right words to the student who cried endlessly to you after school, or if you did a disservice to the student whose pains from their home life resulted in an eruption during second period today. You might be wondering if you could have done a better job at maintaining your composure while you had to work with that student while calming the other students down and continuing with your lesson.
When your day has ended and you are doing your best to implement those self-care practices your friends keep telling you about, you likely think about your students as you make your way home and consider what you can do to make tomorrow better. You care—sometimes to a fault—and as the year winds down and you become consumed with exhaustion, you remember that you have been called to do this most challenging and beautiful work.
I know, dear teacher, that this year has been weighty. That you have risen early each morning to care for your loved ones and yourself as you geared up for another day with your students.
Perhaps on some days you left the grief and agony of your own life at the threshold of your apartment door so that you might be able to fully hear and carry the student who has not seen their parent in days or the student who feels alone, as though they carry the world on their shoulders.
In addition to thinking about how to get your students to commit to reading because you know what it will do for their minds, you think about how you might be able to assign a text that will also lift their self-esteem, remind them of their self-worth and provide narratives of who they might be—narratives that contradict the devastating ones around them. You know that your lesson plan is not only about skills, about a state test or even about standards, but that it is also a tool to heal your children, affirm their identities and expand their minds, so that they will grow up and strive to make the world a better place.
You recognize, when pulling yourself from your bed, that your class or your presence in the hallway is the only form of consistency that some of your students may be receiving at this point in their lives, that your reaffirming words are the only life-giving messages that your student from an abusive home will get that day.
You consider the hours you spent talking to the student who occupies that lonely seat in the front of your classroom, how she has been moved from foster home to foster home, but she has said she loves the way that you teach. So you put away your grandmother’s dementia and the financial toll of your increasing rent so that you can show up for her—for all of your students.
I understand, selfless educator, that money may be a little low because you saw fit to make sure that special student had a gift placed in their tiny hands on their birthday, and because, once again, your classroom is out of tissues. Because you needed candy for your last lesson or because several of your students forgot to bring lunch money.
You have sought to use your lesson plans to heal your children and, in many ways, the world. Only to learn the next day that injustice and bigotry still seem to prevail. And yet, you persist because you accepted the call to teach.
We do work that matters, dear teachers. I thank you.
Pitts teaches high school English in Harlem, New York. She is also a graduate student at Teachers College of Columbia University.