A couple months ago, I had a teacher I’ve worked with in the past email me to see if I could cover his class for a week in October. I’m working part-time right now, but made arrangements so that I could take his class for the whole week. (Good hours, good pay, good classroom to be working in, a nice mix of Honors Math and Essentials Math kids to work with.)
So a few weeks ago, I was in the swing of things, trying to learn names as I would actually be there long enough to make it worthwhile. A bunch of kids in his Math 9 class remembered me from subbing at the middle school next door, which was pretty cool. It was generally great.
At about 3:30am on the Wednesday of that week, I got a phone call telling me that my sister had very unexpectedly died.
Imagine an emotional rollercoaster, since I won’t actually go into that in depth right now. But, you know, just pretend. I got an hour more sleep before heading to work that morning.
Well … it sucked. I thought about telling them that my sister had died, but chickened out and just told them “I got some incredibly bad news this morning” or just said I was having a really bad day; nothing that really did justice to what was happening. I was tired and grouchy, a handful of the grade 9’s were acting useless and infuriating, and 1/3 of the 11 Essentials class was composed of kids who just would not stop talking, ever. Probably the worst day I’ve had teaching since the day last year when some kid hurled a rubber stopper at my head.
I went home and faced trying to travel to be with my family in time to help plan a funeral.
At this point, somewhere in my rational brain I knew I really didn’t owe anybody anything. I had one day left in the week (Friday was a pro-d day), and friends telling me that to get away from work so I could deal with … everything else. I looked at travel plans, considering flights that would leave early Thursday vs flights leaving shortly after work. My wife had already figured that she could get all of next week planned for her class to have a sub, but that she’d need to finish the week off. I wasn’t sure if I’d get a paid day off as an on-call teacher, and getting all 4 days in a row bumps up my pay scale for that whole week.
But really, I was feeling stubborn. I had looked forward to this week – I wanted it. And I had already heard the story of a student teacher coming to work with these kids who gave up after one day of teaching the grade 9’s. One freaking day. I did not want to become the next chapter in that story for these kids. I did not want them to see me as someone else who gave up on them after having a crappy day, after being frustrated dealing with their behavior. (This is as much or more about wanting to be accepted by the kids as it is some kind of noble pursuit of improving their self-worth. Still trying to sift through how much of that is healthy and how much isn’t, but there it is.)
So I decided I would finish out the week. One more day.
This time, I knew I had to tell them the truth. It wouldn’t be easy, it would be incredibly awkward, but I had to. At the start of class I would explain that my “bad day” comment yesterday wasn’t really fair to them or me, that I had found out yesterday that my sister died and I was WAY beyond “bad day” and that if they had to deal with me being zoned out or short-fused or whatever that they should know what was up. That if I wanted them to treat me like a human being, I should probably let them know that I am one.
Thankfully the first two blocks were the classes that were easier to deal with and hadn’t frustrated me the day before. They were my warm-up, and I told them as much – that they had been great the day before and that honestly I was telling them this so that I’d be able to tell the afternoon classes.
I told the afternoon classes too. The annoying 9’s were less annoying, and the fantastic 9’s were even more fantastic. The 11 Essentials class blew my mind. The worst offenders the day before were the last ones to finish up their work, and they were not only repentant but stuck around and chatted for a minute. They treated me like a human being; they cared. A few of the others in the class made me a quick makeshift card with one of those stick-figure portraits that are becoming one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. (Mr. Giesbrecht, smiling and pointing at a board with the words “COMPOUND INTEREST”.)
(By the way, ever felt the room shift when someone says something? Well, you couldn’t have missed it when I said the words “…my sister died.” One girl in the last block actually did a minor spit-take, which despite everything made me laugh every time I remembered it for the rest of the class.)
When the bell went, I packed up and got out of there fast so I could catch a flight in two and a half hours. I was *so glad* I had gone to work that day. Those kids had made that day worthwhile – they completely healed up what had happened the day before and then some. I trusted them with something real and they proved they were worth trusting.