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"My Happiness is Not Your Job"

Typically, this month's post would be a review of a pedagogical podcast/article, but not today. At the time of this draft (April 26th), I am acknowledging my mom’s first birthday since she passed. She died last May, and it’s been quite the year of firsts, as anyone who has lost a parent could imagine. It’s an interesting position to be in as a teacher: losing one’s parent/guardian/loved adult while needing to be present for your students.

I found out my mother passed away during my lunch period. I had a fifth period class immediately after. In fact, I had already begun the Zoom class, with a few kids already logged in, when I received the phone call from my stepfather, received the news, and immediately turned my camera off. My face gave away that something terrible had happened before the camera went off though. I was about to have my in-person students walk in my classroom. There was an assessment that day: stage craft presentations. What was I to do? My T.A., always the diligent, punctual student saw the I-just-heard-something-terrible face, and messaged me to ask if I was okay. I made a quick decision, after hanging up with my step father, that I should be honest. My go-to demeanor is “Nah, it’s all good. I got this.” But it wasn’t all good, and I didn’t have this. I told her I wasn’t okay. My T.A. hopped in her car and drove immediately to campus. I texted my wife. I didn’t know what to do now. The students are walking in, and more are logging on. It was the safest trap I’ve ever been in. I was on. Show time. My greatest performance about to start: a 32-year-old teacher will attempt to make this horrifying news disappear.

I made it through about half the class period before my vice-principal and a coach came in and said I needed to go home and that they’d cover my class. I shook it off and said it’s cool, but they were right. I wasn’t all good, and I didn’t have this. I went home, approached my already-crying wife, and began the long text and call chain of informing friends and family. They held me in their thoughts and prayers--real thoughts and prayer--because I wasn’t all good, and I didn’t have this.

The next day I went to work and I found comfort in being with my students and fellow teachers and administrators. I was greeted with knowing hugs and condolences from staff; I was greeted with unknowing nonchalance and the usual “wassup, Mr. G.” from my students. I liked it. Business as usual, a routine, my usual. I decided it would be best if I told my students what happened. I may be an actor, but I’m not that good. I couldn’t hide the emotions the previous day’s news had produced. I told them that my mother passed away, so I may be a bit under energy, and that they would have a substitute the next day. They understood. They gave me their condolences, cards, and sympathetic nods. I appreciated that. I appreciated them.

When the funeral had taken place, and my grieving began being part of my daily process, routine, my usual, I told my classes, “My happiness is not your job. However, you all made me feel safe to come to work and teach when I was at a very sad point. Thank you for that. Y’all made me happy.” My students were a bit timid in how to react to that. I didn’t plan to tell them that. But I did, and I’m glad I did. I repeated that phrase, “My happiness is not your job,” the day of this essay’s drafting in celebration of my mother’s first birthday with her not here. And my students helped me; they were all good, they got this.

Sometimes, we educators place our personal feelings on the success or failure of the day on to our students’ behavior. If a class runs smoothly without interruption or misbehavior, we consider it a good day. If we do get interrupted, have to discipline, or constantly shush the class, we consider it a tiring day. If enough of those tiring days happen, we start to question our abilities, and consider our classroom management a failure. But it’s not that at all. Choose what piece(s) of you to put into your class, and whatever that “what” is, give it your 100%. Take it from a theatre teacher: we can’t ever control what the audience does in reaction to our performance, but we can always control what we give our audience. Figure out your poker faces, figure out your level of comfort of vulnerability, and then give your “what” 100% to your students. Not every day will be a day you’re all good; not every day will be a day where you got this. If you have students who know you and respectfully care for you to succeed, they’ll have your back. Your happiness is not their job, but it sure makes a difference when they choose to take that on. Now go be good, you got this!

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