To Serve Them All My Days: Embracing a Lifetime Committment to the Children We Teach
In but a few hours I will once again stand at the front of a classroom filled with students, and I will declare the opening of a new school year. I will take a deep breath and then allow the air to leave my lungs slowly. I will utter a silent prayer and then simply leap.
I really don't know why I still become nervous every year at this time. After all, I'm no longer a rookie. I've done this for over thirty years.
But being a teacher is a bit like being an actor and, every year, you are performing for a brand new audience. From the moment of the first bell in the morning and way beyond the last bell of the afternoon, you are on stage. You must find a way to captivate your students within the first few minutes that first day if you ever expect to keep those audience members on your side for the remaining ten months of the show.
The stage fright is real. Heart pounding, stomach churning, knees shaking. Everything depends on those first few minutes - how you look, how you sound, what you do, what you say.
Having switched to a new school this year, I will be a trembling actor on a new stage in a new theater. Supporting me will be a new director and a new cast and crew. In many ways, this veteran teacher will be completely starting over...and worrying…
Will I live up to the expectations of my principal and team?
Will I inspire my kids to do great things?
Will my students excel in their learning this year?
Will they like me?
…just as I did my very first day of teaching decades ago.
During that first year, PBS aired the miniseries, "To Serve Them All My Days," which was based on the R.F. Delderfield novel of the same title. The story followed the life of David Powlett-Jones, a fictional teacher working at a British boys’ school during the early twentieth century. The young man had returned from the battlefield and was suffering from the horrors of war. Nervously, he stepped before his own students. In time, this teacher succeeded in touching the lives of many young men and eventually their sons and their grandsons as well. In turn, his own life was molded by the interactions he had with his students.
After watching the miniseries, I devoured the book. That says a lot considering that I am a slow reader and this book was nearly 700 pages long. Instantly, though, I connected to the young David at the book’s beginning, and could honestly relate to all of the trepidation and joy of a first year teacher. And I yearned for the sense of accomplishment and feeling of satisfaction earned by the older David at the end of the book.
I took the title of the novel to be my own personal mantra, one that continues to guide me through my work with kids today: To Serve Them All My Days.
Over the years, I have come to realize that teaching is not a job. I don’t even think of it as a career in the strictest sense of the word. Teaching is a sacred offering - a giving of one’s heart and soul and time and energy and money and...life. It is frustrating and rewarding at the same time. The frustrations have no problem showing up at your door. Sometimes it takes days, months or even years for the rewards to arrive.
You will be tired. You will be elated. You will be disappointed. You will even be...nervous... Often.
A lot of conversation abounds in the “real” world about how schools need to be run like businesses...most of the talk coming from non-educators. Certainly there are great lessons from the business world that can help schools to be more successful. We could learn a thing or two about organization and leadership and customer service. But there exists one thing that makes our work truly unique: Our products are living and breathing and constantly developing. They are never completely finished. And our hearts and souls and, yes, even our nerves, are connected to the hearts and souls of these products...forever.
I am now nearing the age of the older David Powlett-Jones, who by the end of the novel had watched hundreds of students come and go, learn and grow, laugh and cry, and even fight and die. The children and grandchildren of my own past students are now entering the system. My first group of kids will soon be planning their 30-year reunion from high school. And children (in various stages of their lives) from the five schools at which I have worked are starting to show back up in my life on a daily basis.
So now, on the eve of yet another new year, I will try to get some rest. In the morning, just before entering my new classroom, I will take a deep breath and then allow the air to leave my lungs slowly. I will utter a silent prayer and then simply leap.
I am so nervous! But I made a pledge years ago, a promise I take seriously. I will commit to my new kids as I have for those who have come to me before and those who will most hopefully follow: To Serve Them All My Days.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.