Monday, January 25, 2016

Such A Damned Hard Job

I've been blogging here since March of 2009, posting something almost every day for nearly seven years. I was inspired by one of our school's parents who told me about her blog and the idea appealed to me, but mostly as a place to "stash" a couple articles I'd written for local publications, figuring that someone might stumble across them and find them of value. In those days I was thrilled, and even a little frightened, when a hundred people stopped by the take a look at what I'd done.

I started slowly those first couple months, but by July I was pretty much getting something up every day, including weekends. I've now cut back to five days a week, posting mostly new material, although about once a week I'll dig something out of the archives, dust it off, fluff it up, add new photos and present it again. 

In the beginning I attempted to "market" the blog, hooking up with fellow bloggers, sharing their links so that they would share mine, but for the most part I've done nothing more than post the best thing I can each day. Several times a week, someone approaches me for tips on how to build their audience. All I can do is tell them my story: post the best thing you can each day for a long time.

Today, each of my posts reach thousands of people, often tens of thousands, even the crappy ones, even the ones riddled with typos, and through that I've gained some notoriety, at least within our little world of progressive, play-based early childhood education. I've even three times been recognized on the street by readers: "Hey, aren't you Teacher Tom?" One time it happened while my wife was with me, which opened her eyes to my little blogging hobby. And because of the blog, I've had the opportunity to travel to eight countries on four continents over the last several years, all cool stuff for which I'm incredibly grateful. Yet, at bottom, I'm still just a guy who gets up at 5 a.m. and writes for an hour or so while sitting in my living room in my PJs before heading off to my day job teaching preschool.

The hardest part of doing this isn't coming up with ideas (because there is always something to blog about) or waking up every day (I was a 5 a.m. riser even before the blog) or anything like that. The hardest part is that I've come to realize that at some level I've become a kind of public figure, at least in certain circles, and with that comes the necessity to develop a "thick skin." Over the years, readers have called me, among other things, sexist, racist, passive aggressive, narcissistic, stupid, and arrogant, some or maybe all of it deserved. It doesn't happen often, thankfully, but it hurts each time. I'm not writing this as a ploy to elicit compliments because I receive far more of those than the other, but only to share some of the reality of doing anything in a public way. I don't know how really famous people do it.

Of course, the truth is that every teacher, and every early childhood educator in particular, has to develop a thick skin. Every year, in our 2's class, there is a child or two who can't bear to be near me for any length of time. I know they love me, their parents tell me they talk about me all the time at home, imitate me, sing my songs, and cry when it isn't a school day, but my "celebrity" status overwhelms them when it's undiluted by space or time. This is true for every preschool teacher on the planet: we are all local celebrities who stand very much at the center of the lives of the children we teach and, through them, their families. And that also means that we all stand in a place where we must endure some slings and arrows.

Being the parent is an emotional endeavor and teachers are often convenient punching bags. I'm not saying that some of it isn't deserved. We all make mistakes, we all have "hurt" children we meant to help, and some of us have huge blind spots about our weaknesses, but just as we often receive far too much credit, we also receive far too much blame. I used to allow myself to fight back. Twice during my early years of teaching I literally yelled at parents who I felt were being unfair, and there are times when I still feel like it, but I've learned to bite my tongue, just as I've learned to simply avoid responding to readers who insult me. It's part of the profession: we stand in the midst of an emotional place and, deserved or not, part of the job is to passively absorb at least some of it.

This is the part that people who have never taught don't understand about what we do. It's not all playgrounds and messy art and silly songs. Every morning, no matter how much I love what I do, there is a part of me that worries that this will be the day when something I've done or said or failed to do or say will make me, in someone else's eyes, a jerk of some sort and they'll tell me so with all the heartfelt emotion that comes with the territory. And the truth is that one never really develops a thick skin: it always hurts.

This is why teaching is such a damned hard job.

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Nicole Antunes said...

Hi Tom,
After 18 years as a teacher, I still have a sensitive heart and it hurts to have anyone think ill of me. I have recently left the public school forum and have started my own playbased childcare center and art studio. I constantly question myself and worry about saying and doing the right things. You article has given me a new perspective and I have to develop a thick skin if I'm going to make my buisness and passion a success. Keep doing what you do, your awesome!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for continuing to write despite the hurt feelings. Reading your blog has helped me be a better parent. Every time I read your posts I wish I lived near so my children could join your school.

Kirsten Kirschner said...

Hi Teacher Tom,
I'm so glad I stumbled over your blog some month ago, through Janet Lansbury's, if I remember well. It's a great pleasure to read you and to have a glimpse of what's going on in Woodland Park Cooperative School. It's not common to have this kind of "insight" into a pre-school! and such a good insight moreover : your sense of observation and description of daily interactions is tremendous. What you share, inspires me for my parent-teaching in Switzerland. I hope that many other people around here might read you and become aware of what a pre-school can be. Please, as Nicole quotes: Keep doing what you do!!!!
And whatever critics may say: what you do, is great

Rebecca deCoca said...

From what I've read of your stuff, I can't imagine anyone calling you those names. I would say there's something wrong with them, not you.

As for teaching, I think all teachers feel vulnerable because so much of what we do is an art, and we have to make so many quick judgement decisions every day, and sometimes things don't work out the way they should or we think they're going to, so we have to learn from it. But it sure makes us not perfect.

What I hate is the vulnerability teachers can feel if their style of teaching is very different from someone else's, and administrators try to make comparaisons and indicate that one is better than another.

Anonymous said...

Just when I thought I've read the best post that could ever be written, you top it. Or I should say, tie it. I'm so glad to hear you have so many readers. The world is a better place because of your writing. A much better one. And so many little ones' lives are affected in a positive way because of your work. Not just big ones', like mine. I know first hand because of what I bring of your work to my work each day. Thank you, Tom.

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom,

I love your blog so much! Thank you for putting yourself out there. Your experience and wisdom give me confidence in my approach: respect the kids, trust them and allow the joy to flow through child-centered play/learning. It's not easy to do when you teach in a "mainstream" setting. Don't let the turkeys get you down.

Scott said...

Thank you, Tom, for what you do every day--both in the classroom and on the blog. Thank you for advocating for kids, for challenging status would thinking, for stirring the pot, for inspiring teachers and parents. I'm always thinking and evaluating when I read your posts. Thinking and evaluating when I disagree and when I agree. That is truly good writing.