Bye-bye, Baby

When my first-born, Ciara, was four I enrolled her in a half day program at a local Montessori school. I was a Montessori teacher (taking a year or two out for reproductive purposes) so it made sense that I would want her to reap the Montessori benefits. I prepped Ciara for that first day; we toured the school, bought the snacks, I talked it up, but on the day she was due to start, about ten minutes into the new morning routine, she asked me to sit on the couch with her. “I’m not ready”, she said. “Me neither”, I replied, and that was that. Ciara never made it to preschool.

She was reading, and social and doing just fine without preschool, I told myself, but there was no reasonable way to avoid kindergarten. We toured the school, we bought the backpack, we talked it up, we met the teacher, and on one warm August morning, with her three year old sister on one hand, and her soon to be baby brother kicking around my innards, my husband, Tom, and I walked our little Ciara into Blankner K-8 to begin her educational journey.

She was ready then. I still wasn’t. I held it together in the school, encouraged by her total excitement and absolute confidence. I held it together in the car, not wanting to upset little Aoife. But, when I got to the bathroom at home, I took a look at my sorry self in the mirror and started to bawl. Oh, how I wept. I wept for Ireland. I wept for the “loss” of my child. I wept for the “loss” of Aoife and (unborn baby) Tomas’s time with their big sister. I wept for the books we wouldn’t read together, the Dragon Tales episodes that would go unwatched, the playground trips we’d miss. I wept for the loss of control. I wept the ugly weep, with snot and slime and deep, reverberating sobs. After about thirty minutes, with my husband knocking on the door to check if I might ever come out, I looked at my red, swollen face, hair “glued” haphazardly  across it, and knew I had to get myself together. Life would go on. We would adjust. She’d be back at 2:45 PM, after all.

Jump forward in time 13 years. The way I just said that is kind of the way it was –  a short jump. Ciara, now 18, had finished her elementary and secondary education. She had played a blinder (despite the deprivation of preschool). She was class president all four years of high school. She joined soccer and swim teams, she soared academically, but more than all that she was a very decent and kind human being. Tom and I had one end goal when we decided to have children; to raise people whose company we would enjoy as adults, and we knocked it out of the park with Ciara. But now, having raised a person we really liked, came the cruel irony of college.

In America, college age kids have a tendency to move away, far away, for college. Back in my day you took the bus to UCC (University College Cork) or the Tech, and were back home in time for the dinner. Parents generally had to beg their children to move out at some point in their twenties. Despite a concerted effort on my part to extol the merits of online college (which could be comfortably attended from the kitchen counter) our American girl had indeed set her sights very far away. Indulgently we drove her to visit universities as much  as ten hours away, but heaved deep, deep sighs of relief when she accepted an offer from the University of Florida, a mere one hundred and twelve miles from home.

Once the decision was made I entered a long and lovely period of denial. I was finishing up my Master’s degree, starting a new job and we were planning a big celebratory European trip to mark multiple family milestones; it was easy to put the college thing on the long finger. A few weeks out from move in day and Ciara told me about moms of her friends who were already openly weeping at any mention of the upcoming nest departures. I was cool as a breeze (though I did find myself humming the Beatles, She’s Leaving Home, at odd times).

The weekend before she left, I went dorm room shopping with her and, though I acknowledged on some strange level, that something was about to change, I still managed to remain aloof. On the one hand I was proud of myself for being able to put her excitement above my potential grief, but on the other I thought it was odd that I was feeling so detached. I speculated that maybe my experience as an emigrant helped me put it all in perspective – she wasn’t leaving us to cross an ocean, after all. That was probably it.

I got through packing and the pile of boxes by the front door feeling calm. My sister came by on the morning of moving day to say her goodbyes. She had confessed to being weepy for days at the prospect of Ciara’s departure, and I had her well warned to “behave”. No sooner had she sat with her cup of tea, across the kitchen island from me, than she sighed deeply, “I remember when she was just born”. Tears stung my eyes, and my heart actually hurt. I shook my head, “Oh, no. We are not doing that, Audrey. No, no, no!” But, by the time the “last” hug was given in the driveway, my sister’s sorrows had me beginning to really feel my own. But I kept it together on the drive up there, thankful that Aoife had come with us in place of Tom, who had to work. I did find myself glancing sideways in the car a lot to see the face in the passenger seat, beginning to realize I wouldn’t be seeing it so much anymore.

Arriving at UF we got elbows deep in the move in process; lugging and hefting in 98 degrees. One elevator trip per family was the rule and with an entire van load of boxes and bags, that meant quite a few lumbering, sweaty stair climbs. Once everything was in the dorm room we set about the fun decorating stuff; hanging pictures and mirrors and setting up the extra long twin bed to make it feel like home. Finally came unpacking the clothes. This is when I really began to feel it; we were going to soon be at the part where we left her. As each bag got unpacked my dread grew. I slowed my unpacking pace, tried to remain upbeat, but my voice was cracking, there were deep sighs, and I know she caught my watery eyes a few times. She started to get a little less excited too, realizing soon she’d be on her own. Thankfully, she had a Rush Week orientation to attend at 7 PM, which meant we ran out of time to linger at an emotional goodbye. I drove her to Whatever Hall, hugged her hard and said goodbye. Yes, crying a bit at this point. As we drove away, I watched her in the rear view mirror walking off into her future without me.

The two hour drive home was not as awful as it might have been. Aoife (for once not having to call shotgun) snoozed and I listened to News Radio to stop my thoughts from wandering. I was good, I told myself. She’d be good. It would all be fine. Exhausted I turned onto our street, feeling pretty darn proud of my levels of stoicism throughout the day, but then I saw it – her car. Her car parked outside our house. Our house that no longer had her in it. That was it; the floodgates opened and I was transported back to that first day of kindergarten – a big snotty, sobby mess, and this time she was not going to be home at 2:45 PM.

The sobbing lasted for about two hours on and off that night, and there has been intermittent sobbing since. Don’t tell me how great it’s going to be – I know. No need to remind me that she has entered the best days of her life – I get it. No one is more delighted for her or proud of her than me. And her leaving – we did that – we explicitly raised her to leave; it was all part of the plan. But just for now I’m indulging my sadness about losing the company of one of the people I love the very most from my daily life. I’m lamenting not knowing how she’s feeling throughout each day, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s done, where she’s going. I’m missing the sound of her laugh from the bedroom, her random hugs, her funny stories. And I know that life will go on. I  know that I will adjust. But I also know that it won’t be anytime soon.

Why I Teach


There is a dichotomy to teaching, which I am grateful for; for every working minute, ten months of the year, we are in the moment – there is no other choice. When I am in my classroom, surrounded by children, my mind is fully focused on the needs and opportunities of the present moment; there is no time for thinking about any of the conditions or problems of my home life. The last six months of this past school year were very challenging on the home front, with death, surgeries, illnesses, and such, and I was never so grateful for this facet of my work. Conversely, at the end of each school year, there is time for reflection; what worked and what didn’t work in the past ten months, and how to improve the experience in the next ten, for the children whose development I will then be charged with.

Reflection is an important part of being successful as a teacher. Summer break is vital, not only to refill the emotional, and physical reserves (which do become depleted after ten months of intense engagement with students, parents, administration and peers) but also to think, to revisit, to plan. Last summer I worked a lot, and took state mandated classes, and returned to the classroom in August, not fully “spiritually” prepared for the year ahead. It was still a great year, but I knew that this summer I owed it to myself and to my next group of students, to breathe, and to think. Then, as if to support that plan, the Universe heaped one challenging event on top of another, so that, come June, there was no other choice but to step back and engage in a bit of self care.

This summer I enjoyed the company of my wonderful family and friends, I sat on a beach in Mexico, I read, I zip lined, I swam with sea turtles, I sailed on a catamaran, I cleared out closets, I redecorated, and I organized twenty years worth of accumulated teacher “stuff”.

The break of the summer naturally lends it self to reflection.  This summer, when it came time for that reflection, I engaged in an annual train of thought and self-analysis (which I’m not totally sure is unique to my profession, or just to me); I considered why it is that I do the job I do?

I contemplate my career choice, and it’s impact on my family, my finances, my health, and my personal and spiritual development. I know, this year in particular, that many, many educators in America have done the same. Record numbers of teachers have chosen to leave the profession altogether after the many debacles of the last school year. And I totally understand why. What other profession puts such demands on its members, while paying them so meagerly, and valuing them (at a societal level, at least) so poorly? It’s a tough number, and only those who feel compelled, at their core, to teach, can survive the job in the long term, without becoming bitter and jaded. I do know a lot of teachers who feel that it is their “soul’s calling”. I envy them. While I have been perceived to be a fairly decent teacher by some over the years, once again this summer I find myself reflecting on why it is that I teach. I consider the reasons against:

Being a teacher means that for ten months of the year, there is an expectation that I am available to answer emails, calls, and texts between the hours of 6 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.

Being a teacher means that the bar on my qualifications is constantly moving, and I am required to take course after course, on my own time, and often on my own dime, at the whim of my school district and state.

Being a teacher means that at social events, when the conversation comes around to disclosing my career choice to other professionals, they usually say, “Oh, that’s nice”, and shortly after move right along to engage in conversation with someone a bit more influential or powerful.

Being a teacher means, despite earning about forty percent less than similarly qualified professionals in other fields, I spend a hefty amount of my own money on my classroom and students (sometimes even buying clothes and food for them).

Being a teacher means sleepless nights worrying about how to get through to that child who is shutting me out, or those children who aren’t learning as they should.

Being a teacher means not only devoting myself to my students, but also having to manage the sometimes challenging behaviors of their parents and guardians.

Being a teacher means working in a petri-dish of germs, being sick frequently and sometimes (more often than you would image) being pooped, urinated or vomited on!

Being a teacher means taking a fresh classroom full of students into my heart every year; living their success and failures, their joys and their tragedies as surely as they were my own, and then having to let them go.

Being a teacher means that I miss my own children’s school events, because they often coincide with those at my school.

And here are a few that aren’t particular to my situation (because I am lucky enough to currently work at a Montessori charter), but which I have experienced, and which are part and parcel of life as a teacher in traditional public schools;

Being a teacher means having to write five page lesson plans for every lesson I plan to teach, without ever being given time at work to write them (goodbye weekend).

Being a teacher means having to teach in prescribed ways (depending on the educational philosophy flavor of the month, at district or state level) and not being trusted to teach or assess in the ways you know work.

Being a teacher means that the bar on expected income and benefits is also constantly moving, with regular adjustments being made to pension, pay scale, and bonuses (and many of the recent changes on this front make no sense at all).

Being a teacher means (and this has been the career-ender for so many teachers this year) losing instructional time with your students for up to three weeks a year, so that they can take often changing, district or state mandated tests, that do nothing but turn your students off learning, and do little to show their actual abilities.

These are the things I consider every summer. With all those negatives, why is it that for fourteen summers now, I have reflected, and still decided to go back to the classroom and do it all again?  It’s because every summer, I remember the reasons why I love teaching:

Being a teacher means being given the gift of a new group of amazing young people to love and nurture every year.  Now, that may not be a very politically correct thing to say, given how we aren’t supposed to touch, much less hug (I teach kindergarten – hugs happen), our students these days, but I don’t know one good teacher, who doesn’t develop a real affection for, or connection with, his or her students every year.

Being a teacher means that I get to share in the failures and successes, joys and tragedies, of the students in my care. I get to offer congratulations when they come in on Monday, all excited about their soccer team’s win, or the great party they were at, or their new karate belt. I get to offer them encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and yes, a hug, through losses, divorces, deaths, and whatever else life throws at them in our time together.

Being a teacher means that I get to facilitate a-ha moments on a daily basis. I get to shepherd my students down the path of discovery. I get to witness the look on their faces when that thing they have been working so hard to understand, finally and suddenly becomes apparent.

Being a teacher means that I get to teach my students that learning is a magnificent endeavor. I get to teach them to take that pleasure for themselves, and to push towards understanding and success, not to make me happy, nor to make their parents happy, but because it makes them feel good to do it.

Being a teacher means that I get to participate in the pure, unadulterated joy of childhood every day. I get to see things through the eyes of a child, and experience the wonder of everything anew, over and over again.

Being a teacher means that I am influential and powerful because I get to nourish humanity at its very roots. I get to encourage children to see beyond themselves; to their classmates, to their communities, and to the world. I get to help them develop a sense of themselves as capable and responsible members of society, and stewards of our planet. Every day I contribute to the formation of good, kind, well informed and well rounded human beings. We need those.

These are the reasons why I teach. The pros are fewer in number than the cons, but they are infinitely more powerful. So, despite the abuses, love and learning are the “drugs” that keep me coming back for more every year. That’s why I teach.