Old habits die hard. I still find myself living by the school year calendar even though I have now been retired for seven years. It seems as though summer vacation gets shorter and shorter for my friends who are still giving it their all in classrooms. Their time off gets squeezed into little more than five or six weeks when training sessions and voluntary prep time are considered. Somehow in spite of the low pay, lack of respect and physically and emotionally draining environment of their jobs, they return August after August filled with hope, altruism and optimism. As they troop back to their stations I find myself empathizing with them, understanding just how demanding their occupations actually are. At this time of year my body reverts to a mode of insomnia, peppered with concern for my fellow teachers and the battles that they will face in the coming months. My thoughts are focused on sending them good vibrations in the hopes that all will go well for them and for their students. Even knowing how challenging their days will be, I still find myself quietly envying them for the wondrous feelings of accomplishment that they will no doubt feel as they educate yet another group of young people.
I laugh as I read comments from my teacher buddies as they sit through those first days of seemingly useless inservice sessions that keep them from doing what they really want to do. Their thoughts are on planning lessons and preparing their classrooms, not reinventing the educational wheel or climbing ropes to build relationships with their colleagues. For the most part they find most of the mandatory sessions to have little value in preparing them for what they are about to encounter. They feel anxious and care little about what is being said.
Ironically I spent the last several years of my career being that person charged with designing the district required meetings that every teacher was compelled to attend. I did my best to make them interesting and a bit fun even though I knew in my heart that I had a captive audience that would have rather been free to ready themselves for the exhausting road that lay ahead. It often felt like performing at a comedy club with a tough audience that refused to laugh at even my best jokes. I read the body language that was ever so polite, but far from being engaged. What they rarely knew was that I mostly agreed with them that those first days back at work needed to be spent tackling the nitty gritty of working inside their own classrooms, not considering recycled education theories. It was simply neither the time nor the place for such things.
When I think back on my forty odd years of returning to work each August I remember only a handful of inservice moments that somehow struck my fancy. All of the others were akin to the vacuous sound of the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. Mostly they were lessons in how not to inspire, and reiterations of theories that came and went. Because so little time was allowed for the things that we actually had to accomplish before the students came the following week, most of us worked long after being dismissed from the sessions, often returning on the weekend just before the opening day of school. Generally we were exhausted before the first bell had even rung.
One year I heard a vivacious women speak. She was a true story teller and her remarks were both touching and funny. What I recall the most about her talk was her admonition that we understand that there never has been nor ever will be one best way of teaching. Because each person is unique she advised us to adapt to the individual needs of our students, and sometimes that meant stripping down our efforts to the most basic and primitive methods, requiring only a stick and a plot of wet sand. Mostly, she advised us, it meant connecting with our students in truly meaningful ways, understanding what they needed to feel confident and successful.
On another occasion we began the academic year by taking a brief personality test, eating a glorious breakfast, and then being set free to take care of the business of preparing for the arrival of our students. It was such a magnificent experience to be trusted by our superiors to do the right thing. Everyone worked hard and there was more team building that year than I ever before or since experienced. At the end of the week when the entire school was gleaming and fabulous lesson plans were in the books, we gathered once again to enjoy a deliciously catered lunch and to learn the results of our personality tests. The gifted principal used the occasion to stress that the faculty with its differing individuals was a microcosm of our own classrooms. She emphasized that each type of person brought particular talents to the table just as our pupils would. She ended by insisting that we leave early and reserve the weekend for some final relaxation. She gave each of us a basket filled with supplies, snacks, coupons, and even a little bonus check. Somehow I still remember that school year as the best ever, and I suspect that it was mostly because of its glorious start.
Teachers do indeed sacrifice a great deal for their students. It is a ridiculous myth that they are mostly individuals who are not suited for better pursuits. Those without talent and intellect are lucky to last for a year. The ones who return again and again are generally the best of our society. They come because they are truly dedicated to a breathtaking cause. They will work for peanuts for twelve or more hours a day from August until June. They will spend their weekends planning and grading and worrying about their students. They are known for generously spending hundreds and even thousands of their own dollars to keep their classrooms stocked with supplies.They will develop weak bladders and problems with their feet, backs and knees from the abuse that comes from being on constant alert for the welfare of their charges. They will learn to ignore the never ending insults that are hurled at them from a public that has no idea how difficult their jobs actually are. They will soldier on because deep in their hearts that know how important their work is to our society. They are building the foundation upon which everything else depends, and accomplishing it without much respect or help.
So, yes, I think of all the teachers at this time each year. I feel the sense of anticipation, the worries, and the wish that just once our world might truly acknowledge the massive contributions of that all of these wonderful individuals give so freely. Perhaps one day we will learn how to treat them the way that they deserve.