Poems To Sustain Our Teaching Hearts
I don’t know about you, but as we enter this last stretch of the school year, I need all of the sustenance I can get. Just when I hope and expect to see maturity levels rise in my sixth graders, I find myself putting out fires all over the room all day, acting more like a traffic cop or babysitter than I would like.
I know my kids are getting antsy, not only with summer vacation coming, but also with the huge transition in their lives when they leave our elementary school setting, where they have been for seven or eight years, and move into the middle school/high school setting for the next six years. I see regression in behavior.
Small things that we stamped out months ago (a touching/tag game) come blooming back. There’s that group of boys who returned to school after spring break, openly declaring “I’m done for the year.” There’s the slouch of shoulders, and the nearly audible sigh of “this is boring” every time we start something new. There’s the raft of emails sent off to parents, trying to engage them as my partner to rein things back in.
I’m exhausted, and there’s still three weeks to go.
Which is why I am so grateful to get my hands on the newly-published Teaching With Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach. This collection of short essays by educators (including myself) about poems that sustain us as teachers during the difficult times of education reform, doubts about our effectiveness, care about that student who seems lost in life, and our own survival through the school year is like food for the soul.
This is the third collection put out by editors Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner in which educators are invited to share poems that shape them as teachers. These are the poems we keep by the nightstand or framed on our desk, literally or figuratively. The 250-word essays, paired up with the poems, are like lifelines.
Grappling with words
I flip through the book, finding a piece by high school teacher Emily Brisse, who points us to the poem “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur, as she brings us into her classroom and her own realization that her students “…each of them, who — underneath their baggy clothes and eyeliner — are grappling with words as old as earth, and getting them right.”
There’s Kathleen Melville, who begins her essay with a line that resonates with me: “I feel guilty,” and then goes on to share out Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” with the lines: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the world offers itself to your imagination/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.”
There’s Jose Vilson, middle school math teacher, bringing us into his own difficult childhood, as he relates to his students now with echoes of Tupak Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” as poetic soundtrack to his days. And middle school teacher Melissa Madenki shares out John Daniel’s “A Prayer Among Friends,” noting that the poem “makes me feel part of a tribe, of something larger.”
This collection is doing that for me right now, too, making me feel part of a tribe as we enter the final days of the school year. For the past week, I’ve come home from a day of what seems to be increasingly loud noise, squabbling and vigilant discipline measures, trying to get the tone of my classroom community back on track, and I have found solace in the words of my colleagues in this collection, where the poets have written words that go deep into the emotional core of what it means to be a teacher.
What Teachers Make
Which brings me to my own submission in Teaching With Heart.
Like many other contributors, I considered the editors’ advice to search for a poem that I come back to time and again, and to consider the story of that poem and its impact on my teaching life. I chose Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” a powerful spoken poem that confronts the question of why one would want to teach head-on in a style and bluster that only Mali can muster.
There are times when I need Mali’s muse on my shoulder, when I need his anger and bite, and his final remark that teachers “make a difference” is a critical understanding of why I work so hard to connect with my students, day in and day out, just like you.
I invite you to post a comment here. What’s your poem? Whose words do you keep close to you and why? Join the conversation.
ALSO SEE AT MIDDLEWEB: Courageous Hearts: Teachers Write About Their Work, by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner.