Being a teacher in difficult times


Kathleen McQuillan

Last week, National Public Radio featured a poem created by Kwame Alexander, NPR’s 2022 Poet-in-Residence, which included submissions from listeners titled “Who Will Clean the Offices.” It was a way to recognize the extraordinary work of teachers across our country as part of National Teacher Month. Over three hundred memoirs and stories poured in to inspire the poem, an example of what is called a “crowdsourced” poem. Reciting Alexander with NPR host Rachel Martin moved me to tears.
It was my original plan to share the poem in its entirety, in this space where my essay appears, but journalistic practicalities made that impossible. The power of the poem’s message has not left me.
Entries were requested long before the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. However, some submissions arrived in the days following this sad event which claimed the lives of nineteen children and two teachers. Despite the poet’s intention to celebrate the work of the teachers, Alexander could not ignore these later submissions expressing the horror and grief that swept through Uvalde and our entire nation.
That same week, I met a friend who had retired after many years of teaching in our area schools. She felt shock and grief after hearing about this remote rural community in Texas. During her career, she had lost many of her students in unexpected tragedy. The grief resurfaces every time she remembers those times.
I, too, remembered the painful shock that hit our community every time we lost one of our children. She and I recounted nearly a dozen incidents that had prematurely claimed the lives of these young people. Together, we sympathized with the people of Uvalde. I saw the sorrow in his eyes. Teaching had been “more than a job” for my friend. It was his calling. The visions his students had of themselves were part of his. She was deeply invested in their future. And then suddenly they disappeared.
A few days later, I look around me. My world seems eerily calm. My immediate distractions are a way to defend a false illusion of security that shields me from unimaginable heartache. I suppose we all want to believe that these episodes of menacing turbulence only occur elsewhere. And even though these tragic events are reported to us by reporters in faraway places, we know deeply that they can and do happen anywhere when you least expect them.
Early each morning, my little companion, Duffy, wakes me up with a subtle fuss and a soft bark. I get up to take her for our routine walk down the aisle. I love that it’s springtime so we can pause and enjoy the serenity and beauty of dawn. Once back inside, I make my toast and coffee and turn on the radio for the headlines covering the events of the previous day, never very uplifting these days. I start writing my “to do” list—the things that need to be done today and the things that I would like to do if I find the time. Phone calls to family and friends, “business” to take care of, maybe a break from chores to read a poem or two. (Let the distractions begin.) My lists never accumulate overtime to deal with an unexpected event that completely puts my original plan to the test. Generally speaking, my life seems predictable unless, of course, fate has something else in store for us. I should know not to take calm waters for granted.
In reality, life is a jumble of mundane routines intertwined with ever-emerging chains of events vying for our attention and response. The outside world has its way of creeping into our private mental and emotional terrain, constantly reshaping our choices. Choices about where to direct our energy. Choices that present risks and opportunities to explore, listen and learn. To advance our understanding and build trust. To express ourselves and build community. The “real things” of life.
Alexander’s poem rejoices in the way teachers introduce our young people to “the real things in life”. In the process, our teachers give little pieces of themselves – day after day, year after year – because they know their students matter. They really care about them!
It’s June now. For teachers and students, it has been nine long months. “Graduation” involves going to the next level. It’s meant to be a time of pride and joy for significant accomplishments. But this year, our June celebrations are once again marred by tragedy. Our teachers are not just exhausted from nine months of hard work and the many academic and interpersonal responsibilities they have taken on. This year, many will bear the crushing burden of grief.
Now is an important time for us to reflect on what it means to be a teacher in today’s world. Stop and imagine for a moment the challenges and risks of standing in front of a classroom full of hungry hearts and minds at a time that challenges our safety and hope beyond measure. There is no doubt that teachers deserve a generous outpouring of recognition, respect and gratitude. Kwame Alexander’s poem helps us focus on that.
We have all had teachers who left an indelible impression on us – those who gave their hearts and souls to us and to our own children. Consider all the times they struggled with grief for students who were, in a very unique sense, their children too.
If you need something to help create a reflective moment, Kwame’s poem will provide a means. Read it, or better yet, listen to Rachel and recite it out loud to her. Google “Who will clean the offices”. You will be moved. Then, if possible, you might find the time to reach out and share a few kind words, a “thank you!” to a teacher. Trust me. It will go a long way to “make their day!”
You can read or listen to “Who Will Clean Out The Desks” in its entirety by visiting

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