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Larry Efird: Teach us to care and to not care

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Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

A couple of years ago, I came across a small card which had a quote by the British author T.S. Eliot on the front. It simply said, “Teach us to care and not to care.”

At first, I thought to myself what a strange statement that was, even contradictory. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head for weeks. I’ve actually continued to think about it for the past two years, wondering what things I should care about and what things I shouldn’t.

As a teacher, I like to think that I care about all my students and I care about my job. Not to care in this profession is lethal, because we’ve all probably had a teacher or two somewhere along the way who appeared not to care about what he or she was doing, and it was obvious.

But the truth is, there are some things we’d all be better off not caring about. One might be what others say about us, especially students. It’s always nice to hear from a kid that we’re his or her favorite teacher or that they love our class. But sometimes, we might hear a student say something under his breath that wasn’t intended for us to hear. Those comments, when unsolicited, and supposedly private, somehow made it all the way to our ears. They can sting, and they can also discourage.

I’ll never forget a young lady, who on the very first day of class, turned to her classmate and said after I had gone over my syllabus, “I’m going to see if there’s someone else who teaches this class. I don’t want to be in here!” She had no idea that I heard her, but I did, and then I had to deal with her perception of me. Had I been rude? Had I disrespected her in any way? Or was she just “being a teenager”? That’s one of those comments I had to choose not to care about.

I like to think I care about all of my students, but I have to realize there has to be a limit even to my caring. There’s no easy way to make a list about which things teachers should care about and which things they shouldn’t, but to be successful, and even to survive for very long in the teaching profession, teachers have to figure that out on their own. Part of it is common sense, I suppose, and part of it only comes after trial and error. Some comes after tragedy.

Just last week, I learned of the recent death of a former student. When I heard the news, I had trouble believing that a 17-year-old girl was dead. Not until some of her classmates and friends came by to express their grief did I fully comprehend what had really happened.

In a situation such as that, caring is not hard. But thinking back on my own relationship with that student, I first thought of where she sat in my class, and how often I had to tell her to get off her cell phone — at least once a day. I also thought how she never talked disrespectfully to me, but she still didn’t give 100 percent in her work because I always knew she was much smarter than her average in my grade book.

I also had to ask myself whether her average and the score she made on the EOC were more important to me than she was as a human being. She was one of those kids that I could have argued with every day if I had wanted to “prove a point” as her teacher, but because I saw her as a human being first, I cared more about her life than I did her classroom performance. Why, I don’t really know, because there have been other students over the years with whom I have continually struggled in a battle of wills.

But she was different. She responded more to kindness than judgment. Hopefully, she knew I cared about her more than her grades. And thanks to her, I now think I know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School.

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