Work can swamp teachers, but still has rewards

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As the end of my first year as a teacher in Georgia approached, I started to understand why so few teachers remain in the profession for the long haul.

I began to realize why, when they learned what I did for a living, acquaintances would respond, "Wow. Bless your heart."

I was supervising events, sponsoring yearbook and coaching soccer, and working 11- or 12-hour days, as well as attending a plethora of worship services on the weekends - part of the job requirements at a private Christian high school.

The end of the year became all about the stress of finishing the second semester efficiently. Assigning a 10-page research paper to each of my 35 advanced placement seniors did little to alleviate that stress.

The never-ending stack of essays was a constant thorn in my side, the bane of any high school English teacher, as it is one of the few assignments student workers are unable to grade. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of them each month.

I didn't ease up on assigning papers though. I tried to assign essays as often as I could, to give the students a chance to improve their writing ability and to do my best to prepare them for college.

I just hope the red marks on their papers didn't demoralize them to the point where the idea of college was depressing.

I thought that as the year went on I would begin to look older and wiser, more professorial. I was wrong. Being continually mistaken for a student is both a compliment and an insult.

While it was pleasing to know I could pass for a high school senior, it didn't tend to give me a lot of respect around campus.

Even in Thailand, where two other faculty members and I took a group of 12 students on a humanitarian service trip during spring break, city dwellers in Bangkok would remark in their broken English, "You are teacher?!"

Astonished, they would then point to one of my students, who unlike me was 6-foot-4 with a beard, and asked, "He is not teacher?" I told him he was not.

Yet in a way this teenage guy was my teacher, because I learned a lot from him and my other students during the year. This young man was on the basketball team, and he encouraged me to join him and some other students during evening pickup games.

I was able to learn a few extra low-post moves thanks to a few tips he had given me after I had landed flat on my rear end. Along with the rest of the group we had brought to Thailand, he had also taught me the importance of working diligently to help others.

We all labored tirelessly under the merciless Thai sun, digging trenches to lay pipe and help bring fresh water to a mountain village. It was an experience I will never forget - bathing in rivers, eating unidentifiable meats, hiking through ant-infested jungles - and none of it would have been possible if I wasn't working in a high school.

I learned I didn't have to be reading chapters out of "The Scarlet Letter" to be a good teacher, sharing stories and sunscreen on the other side of the world was sometimes just as effective.

All the essays paid off, even if they were a nightmare to grade. The senior class graduated, and they are now college freshmen in several different states, including Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

The bearded basketball player contacted me recently to let me know he had received excellent scores on all his college English papers. It was a relief to know I had not let him down; I hadn't failed in preparing him for college.

But if he and the others start to drop out of college and fail their English classes, it's nice to know I can always put on a school uniform, blend in among the students and avoid the principal for a couple of days.

Martin Surridge, who was a Walla Walla University student, now lives in Georgia.

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