My career in early childhood was never an intentional career choice. In fact, you could say my entire professional path in education was an extension of my first job back in high school when, in 2000, I worked as an elementary after school tutor. Still, if you asked me back in 2009 – when I started working in early childhood – would I want to work in preschool, I would have said “no.”
Yet, this is where I am. To be honest, there are times when I think about career changes and other professions I could pursue. However, deep down, I feel that I’ve yet to reach my potential in this field. Additionally, I’ve found nothing more rewarding and personally gratifying than positively impacting the lives of children, their families, and the surrounding communities. Nothing.
I’ve also met some wonderful people while working in education. Educators are some of the most selfless, hard-working, and under appreciated people in the world. Most people I know are educators, yet I don’t mind surrounding myself in their company. Heck, through working in education, I’ve met some of my best friend’s, the best man at my wedding, and even my wife.
So, you can imagine how particularly disrupting the following conversation is to me. It’s one that I had with a teacher, and there was one statement that struck me the most.
“You don’t have to care about the kids to be a good teacher,” she said.
In 2002, I graduated high school and was looking forward to college. During that transition, I was seriously considering a career in education (although graphic design and English were serious contenders. Go figure.)
Now, although I worked in the after school program – 3pm-6pm – some of the credential staff and teachers knew about my work with the kids. Despite being young, I was demonstrating some raw talent, such as an ability to talk and build relationships with children, push the children academically, be authoritative without being an authoritarian, and something else… they saw that I cared.
I remember a conversation between two teachers. “That Mr. Cardenas seems like he really cares about the students,” they said. And they said that loud enough to make sure I heard it on the other side of the office. At the time, I considered their comments to be high praise. I was only 18. As news spread that I would be going to college to become an educators, teachers approached to applaud my decision. Teachers shared advice with me, such as books to read and videos to watch. Teachers lent me their lesson plans and personal resources.
Perhaps they saw potential in me – the quiet, introverted high school student. Still, the positive words they told me gave me self-esteem.
Then there was one teacher, who I felt meant well, but whose advice really unsettled me. She was young, but did have around 10 years in the field. We stopped and chatted in the hallway, discussing our summers and our plans for August 2012. I talked about going to college and my pursuit of a teaching credential. That’s when she hit me with a verbal brick.
(You don’t have to care? What?)
“There are days I want to leave this job,” she continued to say. “I really don’t like the kids. They get on my nerves. I just learned how to be a good teacher without caring about them. Less stressful, you know?”
(No. Know what? I can’t process this.)
“I’m sure you’ll be good though. You don’t seem like you get stressed out easily. You’re always quiet and calm.”
(No. I’m quiet and calm because I’m quite and calm. No, just, wait a second. I’m still trying to figure out that last thing you said. Slow down.)
I was really taken aback. I wanted to ask further, but I didn’t push the issue. I was 18 after all and she was a 10 year veteran. Who was I to question her experience?
We chatted a little longer. I’m sure I didn’t blink for the rest of the conversation. I had retreated into my mind. The teacher walked down the hallway back to her classroom, her high heels clapping loudly on the cement walkway.
I walked the other way. (Where am I going?) I didn’t know where I was going. I just needed to walk for the sake of walking. I needed to process and time to think.
(You don’t need to care?)
Moral of the Story: Students need teachers who care about them.
It’s been 13 years since that conversation. I think about her advice once in awhile. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to receive her words. Her words were particularly startling because they completely conflicted with my own thoughts about what makes a good teacher, then also about how I cared about my students, and then finally about how other teachers thought I would make a great educator because I cared.
But I know what to think now. I know what I think about them. When I relive that moment, I think to myself, “I hope you don’t work with children anymore.” Her advice is the worst ever given to me.
I’ve heard her comment time and time again, but from other educators and teachers over the years. I listen, nod my head, and then I ask, “Have you considered another profession? Perhaps teaching isn’t your thing.”
I say that because I care about the kids, but also about the person. Working with kids is stressful. Yes, there are many, many good days, but there are many, many bad days. The ebb and flow of the school year can wreak havoc on you, making June, July, and August a necessary chronological oasis for a teacher’s psyche.
Stress has its limits. There are signs too. One of them is when you justify “not caring” as a way to handle the stress, yet still convince yourself that you’re a good teacher. How exactly are you a good teacher without caring? Do you see each child as a percentage on your excel spreadsheet, like a scout observes baseball prospects? Is this a business mentality? I see people trying to apply business tactics in schools and with children. Both scenarios dehumanize children into something more manageable. I don’t know. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I just don’t know how you arrive at this kind of thinking. I hope I never do know.
Still, let me tell you something: care is required. If you stop caring, then it’s time to leave. Seriously. Leave. I’m not trying to be rude, but I don’t think you should believe the lie that care is not a requirement of a great teacher, let alone a good or average teacher. It’s a lie.
Care is foundational to the education profession. I would liken the same kind of attitude to nurses and doctors. You ever have a nurse or doctor who didn’t care? How did that feel? Not good. Now apply that “not good” feeling to a child with a developing brain and emotional threshold. Yeh. Doesn’t feel good thinking about that?
Now, I’m not saying that a caring teacher is someone who is nice and kind and bubbly. Some of my best teachers are ones that gave me tough love, told me how it was, and pushed me to my limits and beyond. They were very tough, yet their toughness was only matched by their care about my future.
As teachers are enjoying this summer, many people are going through transitions: elementary to middle school, high school to college, college to a profession, and many other changes. Those in education are especially enjoying their time off, hopefully at their own personal oasis, like the sandy beach, cabin in the mountains, or sipping a beverage at their local café. I also bet that they are reflecting on their past year and the upcoming one.
As some of you are reflecting, you may have some ups and downs and dread the impending 2015-2016 school year. I would say that’s normal for anyone who cherishes their off time. Furthermore, those same people who think about the looming school year also care about the students.
Now, for those of you that can’t imagine teaching anymore, that can’t envision another year of stress or the thought of working with children, – …if you’re that 2002 summer teacher in the hallway – I humbly advise you to pursue happy travels in another career. For the children’s sake, yes, but for you too. I care about the students, but I also care about people and their well-being.