Friday, May 11, 2018

I Appreciate Not Teaching

This week is a time I used to dread, the convergence of Teacher Appreciation Week and Mothers Day. These events celebrate women (and men teaching-wise) more appreciated in nostalgia and soft-focus than in the day-to -day gritty labor that constitutes reality.

They also obligate already overly busy women to find personal, heart-felt gifts and cards for each other.

 (I'm darkly delighted by the fact that the woman who tirelessly campaigned for Mothers Day to be recognized as a holiday was single and childless. Her mother was already dead.)

Now that I'm retired and only have to deal with Mothers Day, It's not nearly as difficult. If my sons harbor any bitterness over what I may have done or not done, they haven't told me yet. I will leave my shortcomings between the boys and their therapists.

Teaching was much more difficult. Even before I got sick, I felt sure my job was slowly killing me.

Though I am disappointed (aka bitter) about not being able to leave on my own terms and at the top of my game, I have never wanted to go back, even if my health miraculously returned.

If I could go back in time to counsel my younger self, I would tell me to get over the math issues and become a research scientist.

The good part of teaching was the people. I met a wider, more diverse range of mostly good people--educators, students, and parents--who enriched my life in countless ways.

The bad parts I will explain in four categories-- stage fright, expectations, guilt, and exhaustion.

Stage Fright

Teaching is performance art. A teacher spends the whole day in performance, demanding that the audience pay attention.

And the audience is a tough one. Many, sometimes most, of the students are not attending voluntarily. As expert teacher watchers, kids are expert critics. If you are unprepared, boring, or scared, they will call you out. You will be told  your clothes or your hair is ugly. Parents will complain to the office if your clothes are sexy. Kids will draw and imitate you.

And the performance does not stop after hours. Students, former students, and parents work in stores and offices where you go. I once ran into a former student on a trail at a national park five hours away. Communities judge teachers for their behavior outside of the classroom. Depending on community opinions, teachers are fired for being gay or for holding a beer on social media.
Let's pretend this is my hair

And administrators walk into your classroom any time on any day to do evaluations that can cost you your job.

I don't miss the nausea every Sunday night as I tried to reassure myself that everything was ready. I don't miss waking up in a panic.

I don't miss wondering if my back to school night or parent teacher conference outfits looked competent and reassuring.

Dyeing my hair blue and green is rebellion against my own self-censorship for so many years. I'd like to look good. I don't care if I look safe.


Although I am all in favor of teachers being held accountable, the expectations piled on by society and legislatures reach a level of impossible. 

Every grade has a list of skills students will be tested on. Teachers get no leeway when their kids come in missing important skills from former grades. We get no time and little help to give individual tutoring to kids who missed things while ill or moving from one school to another. Help for kids just learning English or struggling with learning disabilities is limited and overwhelmed.

And that's only academics. We are also responsible for hygiene, health screenings, and annual photographs. In our spare time, teachers try to spot and encourage hidden talents and provide love, safety, and mentorship, all while providing character education in a religiously neutral manner designed not to offend parents who include every possible level of society. (In our working class school, cops and prison guards were fairly common, so were con artists and drug dealers.)


Failure is inevitable, especially when we deal with so many students at a time. Many years I had over 200 adolescents to nurture, educate, and watch for mental health issues.

Many wonderful kids passed through my classroom on their way to successful lives. If I can take any credit for them, it is split in so many ways with other teachers. Most of their success comes from their families and themselves.

But one of those wonderful kids, a quiet, bright boy who wrote about how much he loved his family and enjoyed spending time with them,  killed himself. No one saw bullying. No one knows what we could have done to stop him. Chase will always be with me.

The  other kids I remember most are the ones I may have hurt,  the ones I didn't like.

There are eighth-grade voices and faces from my most difficult final year that I can't shake. Four of them ended up in a special behavior problem school. It takes years of paperwork to send kids there and I was one teacher out of eight for part of one year.

But the books, the movies, the myths that formed my decision to teach make me responsible for these budding criminals. Someone should have found a way to reach them. As a teacher I believe I should have been that someone.


There is little wonder that even healthy young teachers spend weekends napping. There is always more to be done. You can always give more, prepare more, love more.

Except you can't. Every teacher eventually has to either self-define good enough or get out.

The jaded or cynical air of many experienced teachers is a method of self-defense against unattainable expectations.

It is understandable that so many people only teach for a few years.

I hope I can eventually see a more balanced view of my life as a teacher.

I hope America will eventually create teaching environments that are healthier for all the idealistic, hopeful people who want to help the children in their care.

Salamanders don't act sassy.
In the meantime, I will live in my imaginary happy place where I study the regeneration powers of salamanders and figure out where those genes reside in humans.

THE PODCAST is about pain and Dickinson's idea that we are somehow transformed and improved by it. I don't agree with her, but the poems are still powerful. It's also very noisy. We're working on creating a better recording area.


Is cheerier and finished--my favorite blue-sky color in a light summer cotton. It took a long time because I had to read the directions so carefully. I still made a major mistake, but am hoping I'm the only one who notices.

I have dish cloths and a niece purse on needles, but really don't know what I'll do next. I'm going camping with my parents in a little more than a week, so I should pick something good for work on the road.

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