Chapel Hill: Opinion

What I wish others knew about teaching – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie Mgongolwa
Katie Mgongolwa

Yesterday at my yearly checkup, I told my eye doctor about how I was teaching summer school.

“Ah,” he nodded sagely, “keeping busy, huh?”

I snorted.

Keeping busy? Is that what he really thought?

Then I froze. Is that what everyone thinks?

Teaching is a ministry. I spent the last 10 months absorbed in the lives of my high school students. I worried if they were getting enough food, if they were safe at home, if they were being bullied, if they were selling drugs, if they would finish high school, if they would finally learn to read.

I cried sometimes when parents criticized me. I laughed uproariously when kids had a quick reply with a twinkle in their eye. I had hundreds of hours of meetings. I spent hours unpaid in workshops.

For 10 months I have lived paycheck to paycheck. For 10 months I have lugged essays and worksheets and the worries of my students home at night. For 10 months I have woken up before the sun and left my family behind as I ventured to school.

Now, I am spending my summer working with dozens of students, many who are ESL students or have diagnosed learning differences. I will help them learn writing and study skills that might propel them through high school, the SATs, college, or getting a job.

Keeping busy? He didn’t know the half of it.

But I didn’t tell him that. By then he’d moved on, and before I knew it, I had an updated prescription for my glasses. The irony struck me as I left that perhaps he had been the one who wasn’t really seeing things clearly.

I wish I had told him what teaching was like. We don’t “keep busy”; we are busy. We don’t get bonuses or even that many thank-yous, but we are there because we answered a calling. This is what teaching is actually like:

It feels like gratitude. It is a parent who sees their child read by choice for the first time, or smiles through happy tears during a parent conference. It is a child who says in surprise, “That was actually fun!”

It looks like love. It is a teacher comforting kids during lockdown drills, knowing that if there was a real intruder, she would protect her students without a second thought. It is a teacher spending hours and hours finding books and materials that represent the spectrum of her students, ensuring they feel represented and included. It is sacrifice.

It looks like hope. It is the student who does homework consistently for the first time, an administrator who always has his teachers’ backs, a kid who finally solves that equation they’ve struggled with. It is the power of “yet”: “I don’t get it ... yet.” It is choosing to show up after a bad day or a bad week because today everything could change for one student.

It feels like fatigue. It is being overworked and underappreciated. It is empty pots of coffee in the teachers’ lounge. It is long days on your feet. It is my coworker who said, “Every May, I start to think I should try a different profession.” It is parent conferences and paperwork and low salaries and feeling like a political pawn. It is hoping your students feel loved and worrying at the shadows under their eyes.

It tastes like failure. It is like being a lighthouse to shipwrecks, desperate to make them whole again. It is reflecting on how lessons could have been improved, realizing you didn’t change everyone’s life, the guilt of those who fell under the radar.

It feels like success. It is becoming a student’s champion, a parent who finally sees a happy child, a kid who finally feels safe, a student who learns to write an essay. It is helping a child learn to think, question, and read in an era that promotes data points. It is patience and courage.

Since moving back to North Carolina in 2013, I have watched the teaching profession sink in national ratings and become a political bargaining chip. Last month 14 local teachers were arrested after marching 20 miles to downtown Raleigh; they marched to draw attention to how we have divested in education, resegregated our students, and underfunded our schools.

Teaching? I would recommend it to everyone and yet to no one. Like parenthood, the days are long and the years are short. To be a teacher means to know you won’t change everybody’s life, but to wake up every morning with the strength to try. So what I want you to know about teaching is that we don’t take summers off. There’s always another book, another lesson, another kid, another idea.

Teaching looks like joy and courage and always, always being there.

Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at