To be a teacher…

Tomorrow is the first day of school.  No first day of school has been the same since June 7, 2005.  That was the day that one of my students, Christina Spirito, committed suicide.  That day changed what being a teacher meant to me.  It changed what was important.  It changed who I was. I cannot, just cannot get over the guilt of having “missed it.”  The reports said that she was working on a school project when she killed herself.  That was my project.

Since her death, I look at each kid much differently.  I look for Christina.  I look for those signals I missed.  What I ended up finding, are signals that I was never aware of.  Kids had been talking to me for years but I had failed to hear them because I was too busy talking to them to listen.  I missed their words, and most importantly missed the many other non-verbal messages that they sent.

I didn’t just find kids contemplating suicide, but dealing with so many other things…the death of a grandparent, parents losing jobs, mothers with cancer diagnoses, divorces shredding loved ones,  homes being foreclosed, parents beating the crap out of them, and how could I ever have missed the pain from the death of their puppies.

At my favorite beach there is a terrible riptide.  If you are not aware of it it will kill you.  One person died the day after my family visited this summer.  One person died at a beach that is beautiful on the surface, with no obvious clues to a deadly current below the surface.  All of these problems that are hidden in my class form a riptide.  I used to wonder how many kids could enter our beautiful classroom only to be swept away by failure.

Why when everything seemed perfect on the surface, why would things end up so badly for some? After my 8 year old daughter read the article about the man’s death at the beach (his son survived),  she looked up and simply said,  “Why didn’t he listen to the signs?”  Maybe he missed them, maybe he ignored them, maybe he didn’t understand what they meant.  He does now, and so do I.


I will never be able to catch all of the signals.  There will always be a riptide in my classroom that I am not aware of.  There will always be kids sending me signals, and sometimes I will still be too busy to stop and listen.  But I try.  The one neat thing about being a teacher is eventually you do get another first day of school.  Another fresh start.  Another chance to tweak what you did last year.  Another year to do what you do a little better.  Each year, I get to rewind, learn from the previous year, do things a little bit differently, a little bit better, and get one more chance to dive into the riptide and save Christina.



  1. Paul,

    This is absolutely amazing and SO true. Thank you. I lost a student early in my career and have never been the same. . .

    Riptide…for sure.

    Thank you, it’s somewhat comforting to have other people along on the journey who understand.

  2. WOW! What a twitter post to click on: If you haven’t read this post by @paulbogush, read it now. bit.ly/rchz2H This is why EVERY teacher should read his blog. Pure heart
    posted by @tjshay
    You so wonderfully write about how every child is different. Everyone in education needs to tune into the message our students are sending us, directly and in tiny breadcrumbs each day. I was in a very small town over the last few weeks that has really been hit by the economic stress in our country. I really thought about how many of our students are starting schools this year that are homeless and desperately trying to cover that up and remain “normal”. How can we all help? I’m not sure but I am very thankful for people like you, great teachers that are there tomorrow to welcome all students with welcome open arms! Take them where they are and give them a rich place to grow and thrive!
    The best of luck to you and your lucky students!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this post Paul. The part where you wrote that if teacher’s can be too busy talking to be able to listen really spoke to my heart. It reminded me that among the stress of test scores, meeting AYP (annual yearly progress) and SIP goals (school improvement plans), that the truly important piece of being a teacher is providing a safe environment for our students. That safe environment includes an adult willing to sometimes put the pressures of the job aside and just listen to their students.

  4. Sad, students are coming to school with more stress and adult issues than I had as a child. It really makes you remember that we are teaching humans, not just scores. Thank you for sharing.

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