Still not great at goodbyes, despite sufficient reps

When you found a classical charter school, you need to accept change. In fact, forget charter or classical, or even founding a school, teachers everywhere are in the same boat. New preps, new classrooms, new technology, new federal policies, new district policies, new textbooks, new everything did. Oh you fancy huh? Ignore that. I’m accustomed to adapting, except in one area.

Students! All humans have favorite people, and (*spoiler*) teachers are human, so teachers have favorite students (#separateblogpost). I’ve been fortunate to have great students year after year, and by “great” I mean students who have have made me strive to be a better person, solely because I want to be closer to the quality of teacher and coach they deserve.

And, year after year, semester after semester, I’ve lost favorites. It’s too intimidating for me to go through and systematically count the casualties (aka transfers yes I’m being dramatic here), but it’s a regular occurrence. I know there are schools where students are killed, or die, or commit suicide, and I’ve experienced that, too. This is not about that.

This is about students choosing another route, and how it feels when that connection is cut off, short. People are complicated, and the schools I’ve worked at are fairly young and niche. This equation leads to turnover. Sometimes students leave and my reaction is, more or less, “That makes sense, where they are right now is not a good fit with where we are right now”. Sometimes students leave and my reaction is “I wish they had stuck around a little longer! We were almost on the same page” And, sometimes, I get punched in the gut.

Gasping for air and getting nothing. Knowing, intellectually, this has happened before, and I survived, but feeling the complete opposite. When you’ve invested a certain amount of your life in another human being, it doesn’t get easier for that person to disappear. And disappear is the right word choice here. Students who transfer down the street might keep in touch with their friends, but when it comes to teachers they may as well have transferred off the planet.

I don’t get accused of being too emotional often. Most of my current students probably would describe me as robotic sooner than they would sappy. Simply put, I am typically in control of what I show, regardless of what I feel. Last spring, I cracked. It was the last day of school, and everyone was signing yearbooks, and I was facing saying goodbye to several students I had worked closely with for several years. I tried to process it all at once, and I failed. I ended up sitting on the bleachers in the gym with tears steadily rolling down my face. This sixth-grade girl walked up to me, clearly concerned. “Mr. McClallen, what’s wrong?” she asked. …”My… my people are leaving” is all I could get out while maintaining any sort of dignity. Embarrassing.

The most recent one has hit me the hardest. It’s what prompted this post, after all. Correction. It wasn’t the act, or my reaction, that prompted this post, it was my reaction to my reaction. “This is ridiculous.” “You should not care this much.” “This is unhealthy.” Those are snippets of my internal dialogue, if you were confused.

So I set out to analyze everything. Why do I feel this way? How should I feel? Who is right?

I have four main conclusions, thus far.

First.

It’s good to care. Teachers are among the professions who need to care to survive, and all those professions have high levels of burnout. Burnout is basically running out of empathy, from my perspective. If I didn’t care about my students, or wasn’t passionate about my school being a good place for great people to grow, then it’s time for me to move on.

Second.

When students you care deeply about choose to leave a school you founded and spent years of your life building, it’s tempting to take it personally. It feels like their choice is a verdict: you failed. Obviously, life is more complicated than that, but just as obviously, you feel what you feel.

Third.

There are certain benchmarks, after which I’ve learned it’s safe to let my guard down a little. If a student makes the jump from eighth to ninth grade, that’s a good sign you’ll be able to continue working with them through high school. If they stick around to be an upperclassman, the odds again jump significantly. This student passed all the major benchmarks, so I was unguarded. Defenseless.

Four.

This is where I justify posting this on a blog entitled “Just P.E.” ..Though I never taught her in a classroom, I had worked with this student since literally the first day of the school, covering EIGHT seasons of three sports. Eight! I had never really paused to consider it, but now I have paused and considered, I definitely spent more time working with this student than any other over my seven years, and second isn’t close.

To top it off, of all the students-athletes I’ve worked with, she had the biggest gap between athletic ability (highly gifted) and mental approach (committed but otherwise unhealthy), so that was something I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to address. It’s draining to work with an athlete who wants more than anything to be great, and trying everything you can think of as the coach, but only seeing midget baby steps.  Her mental progress was akin to how Hemingway describes going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. If I were to make a sports analogy about this sports anecdote, I would say after years of struggling to tread water, she was making significant progress this year and on pace to win a sprint medley relay on her own before she graduated. Seeing her put everything together and reach her potential as a senior was near the top of my list of things I was looking forward to next year. Now? Maybe she’ll still get there. Or maybe I never actually helped her. Maybe I’ll never know.

So, there it is. I’ve processed it. And I’ll come back ready to move forward. Does that make the next time easier? Let’s hope not.

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