Teachers' work is invisible. Sometimes I wish I were a baker or a stonemason, so I could hold a loaf of fresh-baked rye bread in my hands or look down at a wall of carefully placed stones and see what I have accomplished.
It's a lot harder to hold love, hope, or learning in your hands. The substance of our work can rarely be seen, but that doesn't make it any less real.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Still, I always feel baffled on the last day of the school year, once all the kids have left the building. The sudden, unfamiliar silence has its own frequency. It reverberates, deafening as the quiet after a massive bell's final toll.
In the heavy hum of that end-of-the-year silence, I look around at the wastebasket overflowing with crumpled papers, the splintered pencils, and off-kilter chairs and wonder, "What the hell just happened?" During the last 180 days of school—over 1,000 hours in the company of 25 lovable, infuriating, hilarious, exhausting children—what exactly did I achieve?
For every bemused teacher standing in an empty classroom at the end of the year, our triumphs or failures are ultimately intangible. That feels truer than ever this year, when all our schools fell silent months before they should have.
The pandemic has taken our sense of closure and completion to the school year. We didn't get that last day with our class to laugh, cry, and remember all that happened within those four walls during the fleeting passage of our time together.
The amputated end to the school year has also made it hard to figure out how much our students learned with us. At the end of a normal year, we assess every child to capture how far they have come as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, artists, and thinkers. Any assessment is an imperfect echo of the learning that took place, but it provides a way to make the intangible work we do more concrete.
This year, though, we discovered that distance assessment is even harder than distance teaching.
After my school shut down, I continued doing one-on-one reading conferences via Zoom each week. During our virtual class meetings, I did the constant informal assessment that's so instinctive to teachers that we don't even realize we're doing it: gauging how each child is doing mentally, emotionally, and physically by their words, facial expressions, and body language. But determining what my students actually learned this year is harder than it has ever been.
Under normal circumstances, we assess our students every day. We walk from group to group, paying careful attention to what each child is doing, saying, and struggling with. We meet with individual kids so we can get a glimpse of what's happening in their minds and guide their thinking further. That's hard to do on Zoom.
We can try to capture what our students learn with us in numbers and test results, but in the end, it comes down to a thousand moments. Alicia's pride as she picks up her book on dolphins and reads every word perfectly, when at the start of the year she was making them all up. Katie's new sense of stillness and focus when she settles down to write. The discovery that Octavio has a radiant smile, now that he has learned to channel his anger into his artwork.
Those moments don't unfold the same way on a computer screen as they do in the classroom.
As we all make our peace with that loss, we can't forget the most important thing we do as teachers: We make sure every child in our care knows they're loved. As mushy as that may sound, it's the heart of our work. But precisely because it's so fundamental, as essential to children's well-being as air and sunlight, it's also easy to overlook. When's the last time you felt gratitude for the oxygen in the air or marveled at the fact that the sun came up?
A few weeks before the end of the year, I got one of those emails from a former student that tells you that your entire career has been worth it. Ten years after she left my 3rd grade classroom, Ava wrote:
Thank you so, so much for being that one teacher that sparked confidence and ambition in me. I remember hating going to school because I hated to read. English as you know, was not my first language. When I was in your class I finally realized how much I loved to read and had the ambition to read more and more. I will always remember reading Fantastic Mr. Fox and having the small celebration at the end where we drank apple juice. My biggest dream ever since I had you as a teacher, has been to be a teacher. Recently, I've been intrigued with the idea of teaching special needs students. I want to help kids as much as you helped me.
I want to tell Ava that if she attains her dream of becoming a teacher, the evidence of her thousands of hours of labor will never be as tangible as a stonemason's wall or a baker's loaf of bread. Maybe one in a hundred students will reach out 10 years later, the way Ava did, to tell her teacher how she impacted their lives.
But her students will carry her work within them, whether they know it or not. Her work will be kindled each time they read a book, write a sentence, or take a deep breath to calm down when they're angry. The way they feel about themselves, the way they think about the world, the ways they love and argue, speak and listen will all have been shaped by their time in her care.
At the end of each year, and at the end of her career, Ava's classroom will be empty. The kids she has come to love will leave.
Her work will be out there in the world, though, walking around in her students' hearts and minds, enduring as love or starlight.
Justin Minkel teaches 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty public school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. Minkel is the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinMinkel.