The end of the school year is upon us. I think Alice Cooper put it best when he said: “The two most joyous times of the year are Christmas morning and the end of school”. As teachers, by the time we get to June we are mentally and often physically exhausted. In the worst case scenario, we may be battling acute stress, adrenal fatigue, and more. No matter how resilient we are as human beings, we all have a point that we reach where our collective existence as professionals requires us to reflect and step away from the stresses that only a classroom can bring.
Our students are tired too. Tired of assignments, rules, uniforms, and waking up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus. By the end of the month, we all will have earned our precious “time off”. Some will lounge by the pool, others will leave for vacations abroad, and the ones who perhaps slacked off a little too early will be sitting in summer school classrooms across the continent trying to get those credits so that they can still sit next to their friends in next year’s history class.
My alter ego – as I like to call the part of me that is involved in the music industry – has met her fair share of rock stars, and has friends whose job it is to entertain stadiums full of avid concert goers. In the last rock band I was in, we were direct support for Steven Adler’s project, Adler. That was the night I signed my first ever autograph. It took everything in me not to laugh in the face of the “fan” who asked me to sign his 8×10 of the band. Me? You want MY autograph? I’m a high school teacher. And I doubted highly that anyone really wanted my autograph, but they were humouring me since they were lined up waiting to have Adler and his friendly bandmates sign their CDs. But one by one, the “fans” lined up and asked me to sign their jeans, CDs, hats, even their chest! (Don’t ask.)
That I don’t deem myself to be worthy of signing an autograph for a “fan” speaks volumes about the teaching profession. We’re “just” teachers. Why would my signature mean anything except as a signing off on the granting of a credit? That’s the only thing we seem to be asked to “autograph” in our professional lives, and we start to believe with all the media attention on bad teachers that we don’t really mean much. I myself believed this too, until just a few days ago.
What brought about this epiphany of mine was a simple gesture that took place a few days ago when I was doing cafeteria duty. It is a tradition at our school that the graduating students sign each other’s uniform shirts during the last few days of classes. We turn a blind eye to the defacing of the uniform for this wonderful show of affection and rite of passage. As I wandered up and down the aisles of the caf reminding students to be in uniform and tidy up after themselves, I saw one of my students. I had taught her twice and it had been an honour and privilege to do so. She is one of those that comes along only once or twice in a career, and I was already disappointed that she would be leaving our school because she has contributed so much in her four short years here. She came up to me and said: “Miss, you have to sign my shirt!” In that moment, I felt exactly the same way I did that night when a random stranger had asked me for my autograph. Except this time I graciously smiled and wrote a short inspirational message and signed my name. As I was putting the cap back on the Sharpie, two more students appeared Sharpie in hand, and asked me to do the same.
This happened a few more times over the course of 2 days and each and every time, I was honoured to sign my name on a uniform shirt. A uniform I spend most of my days enforcing. A uniform that I can spot a million miles away if I need to find one of “my kids” on a field trip. A uniform that my graduating students will no longer need to put on every morning as they join the legions of “civilians” in the “real world” beyond the walls of our school.
Why does one ask for an autograph? Aside from the eBay re-sellers of the world, asking a celebrity or favourite musician to sign something for you is often a sign of respect and the need to have a tangible memory that might define the meeting of a lifetime. Our autographs help us remember, and they can sometimes be a link to the things that we value and hold dear to our hearts. I have asked for my fair share of autographs, in the nicest, least creepy ways as possible. Each of those autographs holds a memory for me, and in some cases it helped define a specific moment or time in my life. My photos and concert memorabilia are a link to the musical heroes that inspire me each and every day. Perhaps this is why I was so shocked when someone asked me for mine. Teachers are conditioned to think that we do this job because we love it, not because we get recognition for our efforts. Our students move on, and we stay where we are, ready to teach the next “batch” that get put on our class lists.
I sat down and calculated that I have taught over 1500 students in my 14-year career. That’s not including the ones that I’ve coached on a team, or mentored in a club like newspaper or music. I haven’t signed too many “autographs” as a “rock star”, but I have signed countless yearbooks and shirts in my career. I never really saw those as “autographs”, but in so many ways, they are, aren’t they?
I have decided to embrace this sort of respectful gesture. No, I probably won’t sign any 8×10’s of myself (although the thought of handing some out at faculty meetings just to see the look on everyone’s face is a tempting one), or charge my students’ parents $150 for a “VIP Package” the night of parent-teacher interviews, but as teachers, we would be absolutely foolish not to acknowledge the fact that for some young people that we have taught, we have made enough of a difference to be asked to provide a memento of ourselves that they may look back on years from now with the same kind of fondness and nostalgia as some of us do when we look at our concert ticket stubs, or signed posters and record sleeves.
The greatest autograph I have ever signed didn’t come from me being a “rock star” on stage with my band, but as a “rock star” in the classroom. I will do my best to remember that when I’m having a bad day or politicians running for office brand teachers as the villains of the public purse. My dream of being a “rock star” came true. It just happened in a seemingly smaller “arena” – a classroom.
My message to you is to embrace the respect that you earn. Sign those shirts and yearbooks. You may not win awards, you may not make the 6 o’clock news, and you may not have throngs of fans screaming your name as you enter the building to teach on Monday morning, but I promise you, you do have fans. Teachers are rock stars too, we just forget how to be proud of ourselves because we’ve been conditioned to believe we shouldn’t be. It’s time to change that.