Last week, we had a fire drill. I gathered up my attendance sheets, fumbled for a pen, and checked above the pencil sharpener by the door for an emergency exit route. There wasn’t one. That’s when I remembered, Oh yeah, I teach college now. My students do not look to me as the person who protects them in the face of emergency. They do not give me hugs or accidentally call me “Mom” sometimes.
These were all things I was accustomed to as a middle school teacher. Becoming a public school teacher was never part of my plan. My “plan” was, in case you’re wondering, what almost every creative writer’s dream is: I wanted to get my MFA degree, write a “brave” collection of essays in coffee shops, get a few essays published in notable yet humble journals, enter a PhD program in a city with a better bookshop to person ratio, go to a few writer’s retreats, and then get a tenure-track job with a good balance of teaching and writing.
I’m not trying to be cavalier by suggesting that these goals are easy for an MFA in today’s world. I quickly realized that when I started going to graduate school. I paid my way through my MFA by working at a middle school teaching language arts. Like I said, not part of the plan. Unfortunately for my writing career (or maybe fortunately depending on how you look at it), teaching middle school turned out to be something I loved doing. The time where kids were most hormonal, awkward, and misunderstood turned out to be the age group I connected to the most in teaching. I decorated my classroom with owls, started reading from the Sunshine State book list, and tried to teach poetry to thirteen-year-olds. I started a creative writing club at lunch, I coached track after school, and I came home too exhausted to think about my personal identity as being separate from my school identity. I thought about the fact that superheroes also have secret identities that they attempt to use in order to live normal lives. But I wasn’t a superhero. I was a teacher, and as a teacher, all my identities were the same; I was Ms. Davis all the time.
I started getting used to the fact that, despite being contracted to work from 8:20 to 3:45 each day, I was working all day, every day. I stayed at school until 5:30 or 6:00 each evening, cleaning up my classroom, hanging up student work, grading, going to meetings, emailing and calling parents back. I left school in the evening and went for long runs down the nature path by my apartment, thinking about the student whose grades had slipped after her dad left, the boy whose homeless parents couldn’t afford to pay for his lunch or his clothes. I went to my classes at UCF and struggled to put myself back in the role of student. I did homework until I fell asleep and dreamed about being late for classes I didn’t know I was teaching, dreamed about writing all my thoughts on the dry erase board like a giant diary that my kids would laugh at. My whole world revolved around learning, and I was way more interested in how I could help others learn than I was in learning myself.
But after a couple years of working in a seventh grade classroom, I decided I wanted to see what it was like to teach college. I felt like there was something I was missing, some party I wasn’t a part of when I heard my friends and classmates talk about teaching freshman comp. It was like one of those inside jokes I laughed too hard at while people looked at me and realized I didn’t really get it.
Working at Valencia as an adjunct the past month has opened my eyes to a few things. First of all, there was this idea that I had in my mind previously that somehow I was working harder as a middle school teacher than I would as a college teacher. I mean, if I were teaching college, I could go to the bathroom and leave my class unsupervised. I wouldn’t have to worry about writing referrals because I could ask disruptive students to leave. I could have a glass of wine at a reading in a bar, which would definitely be frowned upon, not to mention illegal, at a middle school dance. Everything seemed so simple and cool initially. And I now know that this idea of college being easier to teach than middle school is a myth. In fact, in a lot of ways, teaching college is a hell of a lot harder.
My identity still is largely connected to my role as a teacher. These days, I spend hours in front of the computer screen, patiently answering student emails riddled with questions I’ve already answered three times in class. I adapt lessons that explain choruses of songs as thesis statements. I meet with students before, after, in between classes. I jot down notes of compliments and suggestions for improvement (just like in writing workshops) at the bottom of each paper because I feel obligated to dedicate time to these kids, even if they really aren’t kids in the same sense as seventh graders are kids. I’ve realized that if I continue teaching, I will never be someone who can compartmentalize my life and turn off my teacher mode. Whether I teach middle school or college, I will always care deeply for my students will always give more of my time than I probably should, will always be a little exhausted yet excited at the end of each school day.
It wasn’t until the fire drill the other day that I realized my students still do need me, just in different ways. Nobody calls me “Mom” or wants to hang out in my classroom after school. But they still need me as their teacher. They still seek approval of their teachers and want to do well. Some of them still approach shyly with questions that sound something like, “Um, you talked about getting your degree in creative writing, and um, well… I was wondering if you would, um… look at the novel I’m writing sometime? I’m struggling with characterization.” Despite the fact that a flood of students from Building 8 hopped in their cars and took an early lunch due to the building evacuation, most of my students returned to class ready to work after the fire drill.
Sloane Davis is a graduate of the UCF MFA in nonfiction. She currently teaches Freshman Composition at Valencia College.