I taught school in and around Waldo County for 34 years, so while I never had to teach during a pandemic, I have some sense of what the end of the school year means from the perspective of a teacher. You might think the month of June brings feelings of joy for the summer ahead, and that’s part of what teachers feel, but, really, it’s much more complicated than that.

For a teacher — especially an elementary school teacher — there’s a sadness that the intense experience of living day-to-day with a group of students as they learn, grow and change is about to come to an end. The students are excited to be moving on, and while they may feel some degree of nostalgia for the past year, they’ll stay in touch with their friends, seeing them over the summer and often, in small, rural schools, being in the same class with them again the next year.

There’s also a certain anxiety for teachers at the end of the year. Did you get as far as you should have in teaching math concepts? Are the students doing well on the end-of-year reading tests? And why, oh why, did you assign them that long-term project in the middle of May? Will any of them really finish it with any degree of merit?

As to summer and the leisure it brings — yes, there’s that. But there are also courses and workshops to attend, new methods to learn, teamwork meetings on curriculum, and the excitement of beginning again in the fall with a whole new group of students.

If you think teachers are paid too much, or believe “those who can’t do, teach,” then I suggest you listen to this poem by the teacher and poet Taylor Mali: ted.com/talks/taylor_mali_what_teachers_make.

Despite all its ups and downs and mingled emotions, I loved teaching. I especially loved teaching writing, one of the most challenging subjects. I would often sit and write beside my students, hoping to give them a model to follow. We published books, had poetry readings, and generally celebrated writing. More than anything, I wanted students to know that their words were valued.

This poem, which I wrote while teaching at Robertson School in Belfast, was published in July 1999 in Language Arts Volume 76, Number 6

Writing

 

for Michael

Michael just said, “My pencil busted.”

He says it again.

I think about that—

busted pencils—

how much

that can keep you

from writing—

a little thing like that—

a busted pencil.

What is a busted pencil anyway?

Is a busted pencil

a betrayal?

Something you’ve put your faith in,

but now

it snaps away

leaving you stranded

with nothing to say?

Or maybe it’s

more aggressive than that.

Maybe a busted pencil

is like a slap.

Here, take that!

You thought you were going

to write?

Well, I’ll show you!

See what you can do

without me!

Without me, you’re nothing.

A hand with a stump of wood

pushing paper.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

Maybe a busted pencil

is more like a cry,

another way of saying

Help me!

There are too many words in the world.

My lead is heavy.

The pressure of your finger

is strangling me.

Let loose!

Ease up.

Give me a little room

to breathe.

Michael says it again.

“My pencil busted.”

I get up quietly,

slip him another

& return to my seat

Judy Kaber is the current poet laureate of Belfast.