On Teaching and Mothering

Eric (a pseudonym) was the kind of student who was never where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there. While I never taught him, I met him performing sweep duty in the hallways each day during my planning period. Sweep duty involved walking the hallways close to my classroom and “sweeping” kids to their next class, singing tardy slips as needed. 

I came to know Eric well, because he needed “sweeping” every single day. Each day I found him in the hallway, he had a new reason for being late to class, as though each day presented its own unique challenges. Many days I prayed not to find him, not because I didn’t enjoy seeing him, but because I hoped he would take initiative to form better habits when it came to his career as a student. Despite my eternal optimism, I usually encountered Eric, and would strike up a conversation with him as I walked him to his next class. 

I’d start by saying, “Hey, can you walk with me for a second?” and then ask him a question as I headed in the direction of his third period class. He played along and would act surprised when our conversation ended just in time for him to be delivered to his teacher. 

I loved Eric, and I knew he cared for and respected me. Teenagers are not good at hiding their feelings towards people in authority, and one ususally knows where he/she stands. Because of our mutual affection, he found himself in my room during lunch one day, frantic because of a two-inch rip in his uniform shirt. He was worried about going home that day because he didn’t want his mother to know he had damaged his only school uniform. 

“She’s gonna be so mad,” he said. “She’s gonna go off on me!”

Never mind that Eric didn’t seem to care about any of us at school being mad about his tardiness. He had a mama at home who would be mad about his ripped uniform, and he didn’t want that. So what did I do? I left during my planning period, bought a sewing kit at CVS, and repaired the damage. I could have graded papers, tweaked lesson plans, made copies for the next day, or done any number of important tasks that fell within my job description as a teacher. But I didn’t.

Because being a teacher involves more than just teaching. I am sure all classrooms feel this to some degree, but those of us in primary or secondary schools feel it more than others, and teachers of high-need students and special populations probably feel it even more. 

Being a teacher is teaching life skills as well as academic content. It is loving the easy and the hard to love for exactly who they are. It is being sensitive to students’ emotional needs, offering a listening ear, sharing words of wisdom, or saying a hard truth that the student can’t or won’t hear from their parents. 

It is slipping students a granola bar when their stomach growls during silent reading time. It is supporting the young mothers and fathers instead of judging them for their choices. It is knowing when to be tough and when to be lenient. It is asking for forgiveness and striving for peace. 

It is teaching personal responsiblity while also throwing away forgtten candy wrappers inside of desks. It is demanding excellence while encouraging mistakes. It is nurturing, guiding, and disciplining, all while maintaining healthy boundaries and dancing around school policies. It is making your classroom a refuge, negotiating conflict, staying calm in a crisis, fanning the flame of a student’s wildest dreams.

Being a teacher is humility, selflessness, and life-giving.

Being a teacher often resembles being a mother so closely that it becomes hard to notice where one stops and the other starts. 

Yesterday, someone asked me, “Are you a mother?”

I hesitated, because I knew the answer to the question she was asking was no. I have not birthed or adopted children, and I am not someone’s mother.

But oh, how I have mothered. I have sewn shirts and cooked homecooked meals and bought shoes and soothed someone’s tears and cheered for them from the sidelines when their own mothers couldn’t. I have felt the fulfillment of watching my kids grow and felt the ache of bearing their burdens. I have loved my kids so fiercely that I would walk through fire for them.

I know that many of you teachers mother your students as well, and for many of you, this is one reason why being away from them during unsettling times is so troubling. You know their needs and long to meet them, but the most loving thing you can do for your kids is not to be in a classroom with them. 

You worry about whether or not they have enough to eat, if they are getting proper rest, if they have a sense of stability or routine in their home. You wonder if they feel loved and special, if they know your love for them spans the divides of social distancing and can’t be stopped by a global pandemic. You long to hold your kids in your arms and reassure them that you are there for them. 

So on this Mother’s Day, I thank you. I honor you. I recognize you. Thank you for mothering your students. Thank you for meeting far more needs than academic defecits. Thank you for loving your kids, for nurturing them, for caring for them. Thank you for the thousands of way you sacrifice yourself each day for their wellbeing. You are a teacher. You are a mother. You are important. You matter. 

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One thought on “On Teaching and Mothering

  1. I loved reading this reflection. I’ve been thinking about this very thing the last week or so, not because of Mothers Day but because my seniors just graduated. I (obviously) don’t know what it feels like to love biological children, but I imagine it feels something like what I experience with my students. It’s a whole tangled bundle of love, affection, fear, worry, joy, gratitude, obsession. It feels costly and sacrificial and unrewarded, and the source of my greatest joy.

    I’m not sure if all teachers feel this way or not. Part of me thinks that those of us who don’t have children at home get to mother our students in distinct and deeper ways than those who must prioritize their own kids. I like to think that you and I (and so many others) get to exert all of our emotional, spiritual, and psychological energy toward our students, while others have to divide it among the kids in their own house. And maybe teaching really does feel–and IS–different for us than those who have their own kids. What a sweet gift: I wouldn’t change anything.


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