If you have read my OpEds before, (thank you, thank you very much!) by now you may have noticed the change of title. I tried to hint at this upcoming event in my last post (“Teachers are retiring . . .”) but I am afraid I was just a bit too subtle.
Let me tell you outright: I have retired.
That does not mean that I am not showing up for work at my school next year — I have agreed to return part-time in a different iteration than as a classroom teacher. On my last day, our attendance clerk posted my next year’s class-list on my door. It was blank. I am going to frame it.
It does mean that this coming August, for the first time in thirty three years, if I don’t feel like going to work, for whatever reason, I don’t have to make a phone call by 6 am to ensure that someone will be there in my place. And I don’t have to make absolutely certain that there are written lesson plans that any adult can follow.
In addition to being very liberating, this event causes me to reflect. What is teaching, really? Let me tell you what I think.
I want you to know first off, that this is a diatribe about being totally alone amidst a plethora of emergent humans.
No, that’s not true, actually it is a soliloquy, worthy of Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Unfortunately I am too exhausted to attempt that so you will just have to put up with my usual colloquial obfuscation.
As teachers, we spend an enormous amount of time alone, especially while we are at work. Despite the fact that we are surrounded by people, we are completely alone. I have seen it in my colleagues every day. There can be a room full of active, laughing children engaged and learning and yet that teacher is going it solo. It is the nature of the job.
Each class that I have taught over the years was unique, each group of children brought their own special issues and needs to that class and it was my job to integrate them into the day to day activities that I had planned. This called for constant reappraisal of goals and objectives and daily assessment of progress. These were things I often did alone and on the run. Many decisions had to be made on the spot and quickly. I have read that the only job that forces the employee to make more decisions in a given day than teaching, is that of an air controller. I believe it. On those occasions where I was able to consult with colleagues our problems invariably intersected only at a macro level, that is, broadly and we were left to work out the details ourselves, alone.
Additionally, there is the perpetual self-assessment: Have I taught this objective enough? Do they understand the concept sufficiently to move on? Can I do it another way and be more effective? Teachers always second guess themselves. These kinds of questions constantly trail behind you like hungry cats, meowing for attention. Every time you feed one cat, more cats arrive and to be brutally honest, I am not overly fond of cats.
But I love teaching, few jobs I have held are so intrinsically satisfying. That is probably how I stuck with it for 33 years. And I always knew it is also unpredictable. That kept each day fresh and challenging. Knowing this, I liked to say that my lesson plans were, unintentionally, virtual works of fiction that occasionally, but only on exceedingly rare occasions, came true.
A teacher, walking into the classroom, never really knows for sure what will happen, day to day. Yet I did it approximately 6000 times. When I got in there each school day, with a crowd of developing humans, all together in one room for an extended period of time; I knew one simple fact: whatever I did, whatever occurred, I must still teach.
Teaching is hard. Good teaching is even harder. It is difficult to be the only one in the room who thinks that they know with any certainty what should be going on in the minds of twenty or thirty children, and then making it happen. Try it, I dare you. Just don’t step on the cats.