by Adrin Fisher

In the bright, fanciful morning of the new year, I embarked on a reading challenge, Shakespeare 2020. Organized by iambic pentameter whiz Ian Doescher, the goal is to read all Shakespeare’s writing this year. I signed up for the Facebook group, pulled out my college Riverside Shakespeare and found the Arkangel audio series online. In short order, the online group morphed into a “hive mind.” People posted book titles, film recommendations, excerpts from literary criticism, links to articles, favorite lines, commentary, performance dates. It was all so heady and exciting! So many smart people, so passionate about Shakespeare!

Several Shakespeare plays lay out across a wooden table.

Then people began posting about their “process.” Here’s a true example of someone’s method of reading the assigned play: a cold read-through, then appropriate chapters in both Asimov and Bloom, then two filmed performances, re-read with audio, then study a secondary text about Shakespeare’s life and times, and then finally post a self-congratulatory note. Just reading those steps makes me feel small—and defensive. And now, there’s a whole passel of people who are letting us know they are two plays ahead of schedule. I complain to my husband, and he reminds me of what I know—in fact, what I wrote about in January—that it’s not a competition. And also, he reminds me that it’s the internet. I could be the Queen of Sheba on here if I wanted to. And also, who cares? Except me, sort of.

Would you like to know my process? I find a spare twenty minutes (maybe I got up extra early or maybe my kids are watching BattleBots again) and I grab my phone, my pen and my composition book. I read the intro and Spark Notes, if I need a boost. I’ve had to watch two documentaries about the Wars of the Roses because I was lost—so lost. I’ve fallen behind the schedule twice, but I’m doing ok now. I have about 54 hours left to finish Richard the III. Right now I’m on Act 1, Scene 3—26 minutes in, with 3 hours and 6 minutes left to go. It’s ok.

To work this challenge into life, I’ve given up some things. Like, for example, I’ve sacrificed almost all other pleasure reading. Last year I was in a book club (for me) that met monthly…but no time. In fact, I’m struggling to get the readings done for the student book club I run. I’m chucking the newspaper right into the recycling bin. I’ve found that I’d rather read a play than correct essays—surprise! And I’m not into dusting lately, but I don’t miss that much.

I chose this, after all. I decided to add this challenge to my life. I’m giving what I have to give, because that’s all I’ve got.

So that got me thinking about my students. 

Sometimes I wonder if they are giving me all they have to give. Even when it’s not up to my standards. Even when I’ve heard the same excuses over and over. Whether the kid is shamefaced or defiant, I wonder if they are at their maximum. Maybe all they’re giving is all they have.

One of the very first eye-openers of my very first classroom placement was the realization that not every kid is like me. I was a conscientious student. Grades were important to me, but not everyone is motivated by report cards. Challenge 1.

Challenge 2: Social media. In my dual-credit senior class this semester, I’ve had students analyzing technology-related essays. A couple of weeks ago, I asked kids to track their phone usage and draw some conclusions in their journals. The results were shocking. One student-athlete spent an average of 9 hours a day on her phone. For 17 hours that week, she was on TikTok. She was shocked, too. Some of that phone-screen time happens during the school day—which is another serious issue—but no matter when it’s happening, it’s affecting everything. It can’t not.

Challenge 3: Mental health. I can personally name five students who have been hospitalized for mental health treatment this school year, some more than once. This seems like a lot. While I believe that part of the increase is our heightened awareness of mental health issues (which is positive), as well as the overuse of the word “anxiety” to describe normal nervousness (which is not so great), I do believe teenagers today have burst into a more challenging world. Though I had a subscription to Seventeen as a high schooler, I could just close the magazine and return to my life. Our students can’t do that. See Challenge 2.

So, when you take into account the fact that personalities and motivation and interests differ, the realization that kids are spending more time than even THEY think on their phones, and the fact that social media exacerbates mental health issues, you’re left with kids who are dealing with things that you (likely) didn’t imagine as a student. 

Now multiply those three challenges by teenagers who…

  • are parents or surrogate parents;
  • face food insecurity;
  • live with drug use or alcoholism in the home;
  • move every other night under joint custody;
  • have absentee parents;
  • work a part-time job with bosses who aren’t sympathetic to their schedules;
  • are survivors of abuse;
  • stress about FAFSA and college and scholarship applications;
  • and are pressured by 6 or 7 different teachers to get homework done, be on time to class, bring a pencil, a textbook, a notebook, paper.

And some students are homeless or harbor an undetected disability or have just lost a loved one or are struggling with orientation or identity or are suffering from a chronic health problem.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

But, you know what? They’re tired too. We grownups get to choose some of our challenges. Kids don’t.

Personally, I believe that we have one life. I believe that our choices are significant and our words are meaningful. I believe that the way I act and interact with these kids impacts them—impacts this community. 

I also believe that time is short. I need to teach my students skills and see them practice. Reading matters and writing can change the world.

And—finally—I believe that we need to remember compassion. These kids—some of them—are functioning at their maximum. They are challenged-out. And their challenges, unlike Shakespeare2020 which I can quit without consequence, matter.

So, here’s my challenge to you, teacher-friend. Be compassionate. Remember that you don’t know—can’t know—everything that your students are dealing with. Obviously, we must be good teachers: prepared, fair, rigorous. That’s our job. But let’s not forget the milk of human kindness. Let’s challenge ourselves to give reasonable, thoughtful assignments. Let’s never waste our students’ time. Let’s model preparation, professionalism, and kindness.

And as we recognize our students’ challenges, let’s challenge ourselves to show compassion.

Teacher-friend, my hope for you is that compassion wins out. 

Courage, dear heart.

This is a signboard in my kitchen.  It has a quotation from Mother Teresa: "Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love."

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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of mentor texts or encouraging and supporting her colleagues, you can find her saying “hey there” with jazz hands, tree bathing in a spring-like park with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

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