The word “family” can be a heavy word. A student with “family problems” can be dealing with an argument with a sibling, abuse, homelessness, or pending deportation. As a single teacher living at a safe distance from my own family, I find that my colleagues have become my family in a way that seems to exist only in communities of workers who are in service industries—firemen, police officers, nurses, etc. My biological family in many ways understands my current life less than my adopted, professional family. Eleven years after I began teaching, my parents still question my decision to teach high school (“Wouldn’t you rather teach little kids?”) and do not understand what I deal with on a daily basis. In that respect, I find part of the necessary safety net for human existence in the virtual arms of my colleagues.
I’ve cried tears of sadness and pain over the miscarriages, divorces, and pending departures of my colleagues. I’ve cried tears of laughter at the jokes and teasing that develop out of shared, emotional experiences.
I recently went on a five-day vacation with two colleagues. I was nervous before we left—I had vacationed with college friends before, but never co-workers, and didn’t know what to expect. Those fears were totally pointless. Traveling with my colleagues was just as easy as traveling with friends I’d had since I was 18—and in some ways easier. As on any vacation, I learned details about their lives I had never imagined, and shared information from my own life I had never, ever talked about, even with my closest friends.
Because the thing is, we’re family, and we’re family because we’ve chosen to be a family. When you do what a teacher does, you have to intertwine roots and connections to others as a way of mutual support and survival. You share your hurt, your pain, your love, your funny stories. You decide: we’re in this together. Because that’s the only way it really works.
Teaching is not a job most true teachers can walk away from, any more than most people can simply walk away from their families.
To a degree, we “parent” hundreds of teenagers, and like biological parents, we often do things for students that require us to give more of ourselves than we thought we would give. But if I give everything of myself to my students, I’ll break. They will take everything I offer and never know I’m turning myself inside out and giving up everything for them.
My work family stops me from doing that. They have no problem taking me aside (or calling me out in the middle of dinner in front of God and everybody) and saying, “You have to stop.” My work-family can do that in a way my biological family (none of whom are teachers) cannot. I will hear it from my work-family when I refuse to hear it from my biological family.
These colleagues—this work-family I’ve been part of creating—are who keep me going a little while longer every time I want to quit, what holds me up when I’m sagging with weariness, and what punches me in the arm when I need a bit of encouragement.
So, here’s to family. In its truest sense.
Miss Darkside is the supreme dictator of Room 312. She spends most of her time pretending she lives in a tropical location using the magic of google earth street level view, and watching bad British comedies. She spends her spare time teaching sophomore world history and carefully cultivating her crazy cat lady image.