522. Teaching and Commitment

When people get married or have children, they make commitments. It could easily be argued that having children is more of a commitment than getting married; you may not always be your present spouse’s spouse, but you’ll always be your children’s parent. New spouses aren’t called “stepspouses;” they’re just “spouses.” But someone who occupies the place a parent used to occupy is called a “stepparent.” She/he usually isn’t wicked, as fairy tales tend to depict stepparents, but they aren’t the same as parents, either.
I only recently realized the degree to which becoming someone’s teacher can also be a commitment. I think I’ve always known it, but I don’t think I’ve really
thought about it before. One of my former pupils made me aware of it, e-mailing me that she was angry at her drama teacher for leaving in the middle of the year to take advantage of a “great opportunity” (her quotes). That anger reminded me of the way I felt when my third grade teacher, Mrs. Saffron, left in the middle of the year to have a baby. Her replacement, Mrs. Barmon, was probably a nice person, and having a baby is a pretty good reason for spending time away from a teaching position, but I was a third-grader, and I wasn’t at a point in my life when I could be level-headed about it. To me, Mrs. Saffron had abandoned us. And just to have a baby! From my point of view, that was not much of an excuse.
People tend to get used to their lives. Even if things are less than ideal, at least what we’re used to is predictable. And for some people, predictability is important. It can be nice to know that the person who has played a certain role in your life is going to keep playing that role. I’ve always enjoyed the way some children have seemed to consider me important, but that enjoyment has always been tempered by my realization that all teachers I’ve known – even some I haven’t admired much – have inspired some kind of loyalty. I even remember being glad when a certain bus driver named Bill was our bus driver. Actually, I think he was grumpy, and not very interested in being any child’s favorite. But I knew his name, and I liked that.
The role a teacher plays is pretty important in the life of a child. I remember when a child told me I was her only friend. That was sad, and I did what I could to try to get her to have other friends. When I retired because of multiple sclerosis, and shortly thereafter, started volunteering in an elementary school, she wanted to know why other children got to spend time with me and she didn’t. I think she felt betrayed.
So I guess the contracts teachers sign aren’t the only commitments they make. Teachers quickly become key players in the lives of children, and whether they know it or not, there are at least some children who come to rely on these teachers’ presence. I don’t know what teachers should do about this. If you’re deciding to retire, have a baby, or take advantage of some “great opportunity,” that’s life. But know that your decision may have effects you may not be thinking about.

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