On Fridays, my 7th grade “Foundations of Language and Culture class” meets during the second-to-last period of the day. Some days, I don’t really notice how close the weekend is. Yesterday was not one of those days. We got off to a late start, and some students took longer to get focused than others. Near the end of the class, attention was beginning to wander. This was also true of the students.
Sometimes, though, those moments of wandering attention are the moments that stay with you. I’m not talking about deliberate attempts to distract a teacher, but those times when attention wanders to an idea that genuinely and deeply takes hold. One of the students looked over at me and inquired, “Do teachers have regrets?”
I wasn’t about to go with my first instinct, which was to think about the massive amount of teacher bashing going on these days. Fire bad teachers! Did you know half of teachers are below average?! Half of them! Cut the salaries and especially the benefits of those lazy, greedy feeders at the public trough! No more tenure! No more due process! No more collective bargaining! Old teachers, bad; young teachers, good! And for goodness sake, don’t listen to those charlatans when determining national educational policy! You really want someone stupid enough they couldn’t get a better job than ”teacher” trying to tell politicians, business owners, and testing company executives what they think kids need in school?!
I wasn’t about to go with my second instinct either, which was to think about how many teachers I know are telling their kids to choose any other profession. Any other.
I know I’m lucky. As an independent school educator, I am insulated from the worst of it. In fact, I’m insulated from most of it. I love my students, and they seem to have a good relationship with me. I feel supported by parents and by my colleagues. But teaching is still my profession. These are still my friends. This is still my country. And so it still frustrates and saddens me.
While all this flashed through my head, one of the other students looked up and smiled and said, “No. They’re not human. They don’t have any regrets.” Of course, the first student knew that, and she made a face and said as much. Then she asked me, “What is your biggest regret?” It is a great question.
Susan Allen Toth, in her memoir, Ivy Days, about her four years at Smith College, wrote that she doesn’t really know how to respond when people ask if she is happy she went there. Of course, but… Yes, and then… Fundamentally, she reasons, if she’s happy with where she is now, no matter how she got there, can she regret the choices she made? Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which one of the Humanities 7 students had recently brought in for “morning poetry,” also came to mind. Listening to it this year, I felt forced as never before to confront the notion that it is unlikely Frost (or any of us) will ever return to the original fork in the road and give the other path a try.
When I gave the Humanities 7 class an interim evaluation, one of my favorite responses for a question about what they had learned this year was the single word, “perspective.” With perspective, of necessity, comes regret. It’s part of growing up, whatever age you might be. You can’t truly regret hurting someone’s feelings without having the perspective to see the world through their eyes. Ideally, my students are coming to understand that regret is an integral part of the human condition, something to accept, something to learn from, but nothing to let ruin your life forever.
So. To return to the original question, what is my biggest regret ever? If I ever do figure it out, I will probably keep it to myself. But I am not shy on this one point, at least. At a time when respect for my profession is lower than I can ever remember, do I personally regret becoming a teacher? No. Ask any of my students. They’ve all heard me say, repeatedly, “I love my job. I love this class.” They can tell you.
P.S. After writing this, I did figure out what my biggest regret ever is, and sent this response to my student: “Look for your “Do teachers have any regrets?” question to eventually make it onto our blog. I have an answer for you about my biggest regret, too – one I actually am willing to share. In short, nearly all my regrets have to do with having hurt someone somehow, even if (and mostly) unintentionally. So my biggest regrets would of necessity be the times I hurt someone the most deeply. Does that make sense?” She responded, “It does.”
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean