So much that goes unmeasured in the wonderful task of teaching

by Adam Patric Miller

When I had to use four sick days in a row recently, I got a note from a doctor that cleared me to return to teaching, and I emailed it to human resources. I even got an email from our principal, which was nice of him. We teachers joke about not having any feelings left, but we appreciate care.

I hate missing school. Most teachers I know don’t like to miss a day. Each day I was sick, I missed the chance to do something important in class. Not so much teaching commas or the point of symbols, but being an adult in a room where students are learning — young people who, deep down, know there’s something important to their education.

I’m pretty sure that, after almost 30 years of day-to-day teaching, that educational thing is impossible to measure. The Board of Education, administrators, the state and our country, they don’t want to hear that. But there’s major learning going on unmeasured. I’m not trying to get all weepy about it, but the act of teaching, being the caretaker of young people, helps students and the teacher create a better life and a better society.

As an English teacher, I’m going to help my students read, write and speak better. But there’s a lot more work to do. A teacher has to be the adult in the room. When a student insists you call him by his name and add the word “dog” (like Jim-Dog), or another is on the 50th level of a game on his laptop while he’s also taking copious notes as you teach, or another can no longer sit in her chair because of her exhaustion (her cancer, you find out, was Stage 4), you, the adult in the room, can handle those things in a gentle way.

I remember the last time I saw the student who couldn’t stay sitting in her chair. She was sleeping in the library and was no longer in my class because school officials reduced her coursework. But she wanted to keep coming to school. The few interactions I had with her, she smiled. After she died, I remember when my class got to the part of a book we were studying that tells of an elementary school girl who dies from cancer. There is more to the story in the book and more to the story of a high school student who died this year, but I’m not saying anything, and none of my students is saying anything, either.

There’s a skinny student with curly hair, a boy who claps his hands together. It’s like an explosion. He’s a funny kid. I’ve learned he’s good at golf. But that clapping of hands! He puts me on edge every time. This is something not to be found on a standardized test. I’ve asked him to cool it. He mostly has. While I was sick, I missed the clapping. Then there’s another student whose last name is that of a famous Italian composer. He was so disrespectful to me one class, I almost kicked him out. Later that night, I got an emailed apology. He was having a bad day.

The presence of a teacher makes all the difference. I love teaching literature and seeing a student’s writing grow. It’s important I know exactly when and how to push and prod with Monday’s lesson, just as it’s equally important for me to know when to hold back and say nothing. Being there. I’ve seen decades of teaching go by very fast and heard every complaint.

But whatever this job is supposed to be, I’ve never regretted a second being in the classroom with students. Having worked in a job outside of teaching, I will attempt a metric: If you miss one day of teaching, it’s like missing five days of a normal job. Students are learning at a rapid rate, whatever they’re learning, and they do need the adult in the room to help with their educational navigations: commas, iPhones, self-care, zoning out, tuning in, laughing or not crying. Or waiting until the tears do come.

Adam Patric Miller has taught high school for 25 years in three states and currently teaches in St. Louis. He is the author of the book “A Greater Monster.”