While attending a local charity event, it happened. It’s the moment every teacher dreads. It’s the unexpected scenario that stops us in our tracks as embarrassment and anxiety ensues. While conversing with my husband and some friends, I spotted them off in the distance—20-something former students from my very first year of teaching.
Now mature adults with adult beverages in hand—I’ll never get over the shock of realizing they grow to an age old enough to drink a beer—these former students flashed me a smile and elicited a polite wave. Then I began to sweat as they approached me to make small talk. Why? Because they know.
They know there was a time when I didn’t have it all together. They were once students in my 11th and 12th grade English classes in the early stage of my career, a time when I felt like I was drowning in a sea of poorly planned lessons, a mismanaged classroom and a lack of content expertise. They literally had a front-row seat to observe the most chaotic, overwhelming year of my entire life, and they witnessed it all.
To be perfectly honest, I still don’t have it all together. Nevertheless, since being awarded “Illinois Teacher of the Year” everyone assumes that I do. Yet these former students know better than anyone that it’s all a facade, and their presence as adults forces me to reflect momentarily on all of the failures from the beginning of my teaching career: the horrendous assessments, the unproductive writers’ workshops and the cringeworthy moments that stemmed from my lack of classroom management skills.
Though elated to have the opportunity to reminisce with these individuals about how their lives have progressed since high school, my inner monologue is one of paranoia. Do they think I’m an impostor? Was I the worst teacher they ever had? Did I irreversibly screw up their love for literature? Do they remember any of the grammar lessons I taught them? Should I apologize for having been such a terrible teacher? Have they forgiven me for not being better, not being enough?
Then reality sets in. This paranoid feeling, for me at least, never really goes away. Despite knowing that I am a more effective educator than I was 11 years ago, I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough to meet the ever-evolving needs of my students. The impostor complex never disappears completely, and I’m of the belief that this is common for so many educators.
Eventually, however, the paranoia subsides in the midst of these conversations. Perhaps they remember something funny that happened in my classroom years ago, and they divulge that they’ve never belly-laughed as hard as they did at that moment. Or perhaps they tell me that they are getting married soon and ask me to sing at their wedding. Or perhaps they update me on the health of an ailing parent, and I remind them that I am always a mere phone call away if they need me. Whatever it is, in the midst of these moments I am reminded of the following: I am enough. We are enough.
When I get overwhelmed looking back on my first year or looking forward at the challenges ahead, I find comfort in the knowledge that our profession is about building relationships. The perfect teachers that we see in movies don’t actually exist. In fact, when I think back on my own teachers, there are things about each of them that I admire so much. Creating a perfect, superhero teacher would require combing the qualities of over 30 educators from my past.
Ultimately, as long as we’re cultivating meaningful relationships with our students, they will forgive us for those early years when we’re not at our best. Even better, they might just love us at our worst.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...