My job as a special educator is chock-full of insanity and surreal craziness, and thus far my written accounts have tended to focus upon these aspects of the job simply because they are the most memorable and dramatic moments of the 180 or so days that make up a school year. Violence, cops, shattered glass, social maladjustment, gang-banging parents, horror stories from dysfunctional homes—the depressing list of potential topics is long, particularly when you remember that not one of my students is more than 12 years old.
Thankfully, the job consists of more than heartbreak and darkness, for if it didn't then teachers would burn out even more quickly than they do. For the most part, my days are made up of uncountable small moments of silliness and grace that keep the dogs of burnout at bay and prevent me from completely losing faith in my country, my community and humanity in general.
For starters, I get to work with kids, and kids are fun, especially in elementary school. I am probably biased—I have young children of my own—but it seems to me that unless you're bitter or too cool for school (literally and metaphorically), spending time with anyone younger than 11 or 12 years of age is a sure fire way to dispel sadness and self pity. At this age, even kids who are abused (more often than you can imagine) or growing up in extreme poverty are resilient enough to be able to make jokes or laugh at the foibles and male pattern baldness of others, especially their occasionally bumbling teacher. They tell it like it is, warts and all, and that can be very refreshing. If you're grumpy, then they'll tell you. If you're cheerful, they'll mention it. Fly unzipped, fresh haircut, mildly hungover, coffee breath, new engagement ring on your finger, weary divorce lines on your face? They notice and they'll be sure to call you on it, or at least ask you about it.
And that's because kids naturally care about others. Childless folks often think of children as creatures of the "me-me-me right now-now-now" reality, but my experience shows just the opposite: Kids put others before themselves all the time. They share their morning bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos. They give away their dessert. They eagerly volunteer to perform a classroom chore. If one of their own shows up to school crying from god only knows what kind of trauma at home, they instantly and instinctively swarm upon that hurting kid to shower him with hugs, with open ears and with love. That doesn't mean that they're going to listen to adults all the time, stay on task, or stay out of trouble, but it does mean that they naturally feel empathy, even when the adults in their lives withhold it from them.
All that high falutin', higher level stuff—selflessness, generosity and compassion—plus the plain old cuteness factor. Everywhere you look, in every classroom, all the time, cute kids are doing cute things that make you smile. They stroll into school with sequined eyeglasses and smuggled kittens and shoes that light up and carefully gelled blue mohawks and funny stories about farting. They painstakingly craft a Valentine card for their mother but impulsively decide to give it to their teacher instead, just because they can't wait to make somebody happy. They spin round and round until they fall down, run until they're exhausted, and line up 50 deep for a one second whoosh down the ice-covered slide. For the most part, they know that life is good, even when it's not, and they certainly know how to have fun.
Which brings me to the second best aspect of the job: It’s fun. One of the most exciting aspects of teaching is that every single day is utterly different than the one before, and if you're bored then it's only because you're choosing to be boring. Good teaching is multisensory, and even a seemingly dull lesson about a half-dozen vocabulary words could easily be made to include drawings, riddles, charades, tinker toys, clay sculptures, spur-of-the-moment songs and frenzied clapping. If teaching isn't fun, at least most of the time, then you're going about it all wrong and you might want to consider asking your students for some advice on how to increase the frolic factor.
My job can be crazy, and part of almost every day is spent putting out some kind of proverbial fire, but overall I am given the freedom to make my workday as enjoyable and amusing as I choose. To be sure, we all have some control over how we spend our workaday existence. Computer programmers, stock traders, truck drivers, nurses, and factory workers can all strive to cultivate a Zen Buddhist "beginner's mind" that stays open to all possibilities and keeps things fresh. They can think positive thoughts and try to manifest a good day, or can get wired up on good coffee and let that carry them through. But teaching is one of the few professions where a person can literally plan his days to include hour upon hour of fun and games while simultaneously improving the lives of dozens of giggling children—a swell combination that tends to cushion the blow of ongoing disasters and makes the heartbreak bearable.