Old school: A veteran high school teacher on starting over, again

As July melted into August this year – my 31st year teaching high school social studies — people kept asking “When do you go back?” and “How much longer?”

Both questions are in their own way a little depressing.

The first question because it seems that the notion of a summer vacation is becoming as anachronistic as the one-room schoolhouse. The old joke among teachers, “What are the three best reasons for teaching? June, July and August” has become far less apt as increasing demands cut into our summer vacations.

Every hour of every one of our 175 school days we are tasked with making hundreds of decisions, often with little time to truly comprehend what the consequences may be. Who raised their hand? Was the answer correct? What should be my follow-up question? Did that student really call the kid sitting next to her a bitch, and what do we do when the PA system announces “We have a shelter in place. This is not a drill!” Most teachers – even the most energetic and enthusiastic among us — are fried come the end of the school year. We crave time away to re-charge our mental and physical batteries.

But expectations have changed. Summers used to be spent catching up with family, reading trashy novels, working in the yard, taking naps or getting a summer job to help pay the bills. Now they’ve become over-scheduled with professional development classes, staff meetings, school emails to be kept up with, lesson plans to be written and new educational directives from the state and school district that need to be choreographed into our curricula. “Summer vacation” for teachers is now more or less a few weeks away from school. So when I’m asked “When do you go back?” it can be tough to muster an answer, knowing that I haven’t had enough of a real break.

That said, the question “How much longer?” is just as hard to hear. Implicit in that inquiry is the assumption that teachers are in a rush to reach the magic 30-year mark and retire either to a second career or the golf course. I’m happy to report that, a onth into my fourth decade of teaching; it’s still a joy to start the school year, even if my summer vacation was too short.

I started teaching in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was president and Barack Obama had just graduated college. Old yearbook pictures show a skinny, baby-faced 23-year-old fresh out of college trying to look professional and competent in his new career. There was a sense of trepidation about the weight of my responsibilities, yet also deep senses of wonder, amazement and possibility. There was not a day, not even a class period, when I questioned my calling to nurture my students’ interest in history, civics and geography. It didn’t faze me that a few months before I started teaching “A Nation at Risk,” the seminal 1980s critique on the state of education in the U.S., had been published. So began my career as a public school teacher – one that has been under the public’s scrutiny and politicians’ microscopes the entire time.

Today there is gray in my now shorter, thinning hair, and time has added a few pounds. But the past 30 years have not been a rush towards retirement and some sort of life of sponging off PERA. I’m not ready to call it quits just yet. Despite the shorter summer vacations, the swelling the class sizes, the funding cuts and unfunded mandates, I still love what I do and wouldn’t trade the new students, parents, colleagues and challenges for retirement.

So much has changed at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, where I’ve taught for 25 years. But what matters – a sense of promise and purpose – is immutable. Students and staff showed up for the new year all freshly dressed with new hair-cuts and backpacks. The hallways were buffed and cleaned to a mirror finish. Classrooms were freshly decorated with posters reading “Welcome back class of 2014” or “Greeting to the class of 2017!” Most teachers beamed with smiles the first day (unless they’re newbies who’ve been taught, unwisely, NOT to smile until Thanksgiving so their students don’t think they’re weak). Freshmen got hopelessly lost in the long, overcrowded halls, looking for a familiar face or a nod from a teacher assuring them that, before they know it, they’ll find their way. And they have. It was hard not to notice the palpable excited of the football player waiting to strut onto the field for the first game, the overly eager student who raises her hand for every question, the emerging confidence of the shy English-as-a-second-language kid whose language skills grow every day, the ambition of the young actor hoping to land a starring role in the fall drama and the determination of the rookie teacher intent on learning the names and a little bit about each student before the long Labor Day weekend.

Still, despite the optimism of each new school year, certain frustrations set in even in the first two weeks.  Meetings – at times unspeakably long, mind-draining, butt numbing, “why-am-I-here” meetings — can suck the enthusiasm out of teachers like swarms of mosquitos in monsoon season. I’ve long assumed there’s a good reason for this form of meeting torture – but I haven’t figured it out. Directives come from the central office, the building principal, state lawmakers and everyone else who purports to know what works best in my classroom. This year, our district – Colorado Springs District 11 —  is celebrating the “Year of the Student!” which sort of makes me wonder what the other 30 years were about (the “Year of the Assistant Superintendent  in Charge of Technology” or the “Year of the Risk Assessment Manager”?) This year, we’re supposed to adhere to a new district vision called “Creating Awesome!” During a series of meetings, it has been drilled into us that “Awesome can be created by one person through their passion practice and persistence, or it can be a collective synergy of effort between and among people who demonstrate that passion, practice, and persistence while creating the outcome desired.” It’s more than a little demoralizing for a teacher – at least this teacher – to reduce all that we do down to a focus-grouped catch-phrase.

There are other challenges, including an increase in class sizes that stuffs as many as 38 and even 40 students into one classroom. Our school has gained nearly 400 new students, but not nearly enough new staff to accommodate them. Along with the influx of students comes, incredulously, a new directive to “de-clutter your rooms” from district administrators who seem oblivious to the fact that 40 kids packed into the room is the worst, and most negligent kind of clutter.

Then there’s the matter of 2,200 hormone-charged furnaces moving through a cramped school building in the August and September heat. “We realize that indoor conditions vary from outdoors, but unless there are prolonged temperatures over 95°F, there should not be a general health issues,” administrators have written us. The lack of air conditioning may not pose a medical risk, but it’s hardly an environment that’s conducive to learning. Even my International Baccalaureate (IB) seniors who are among the best, brightest and enthusiastic learners are wilting like popsicles on the hood of a car. The heat saps the joy of learning from students and teachers – all of us with sweat dripping down our shirts and onto the books we’re reading. Maybe starting school in mid-August isn’t the best idea after all.

Given all the frustrations and challenges inherent in the profession, my guess is that I’ll teach for another four or five years. Still, it’s hard to imagine getting up in the mornings and doing anything more meaningful than working with students who someday soon will assume the responsibilities of sharing what they know with the next generation, healing what ails our education system and hoping to fix what’s broken in their world. I am a 53 year-old teacher who, both by training and by fiber, is hopelessly optimistic. So, “How much longer?” If my classroom were air-conditioned, if class sizes were capped at 21 students, if the computers worked consistently, if academics were supported as much as athletics, if there were no more pointless meetings, trendy new initiatives, lawmakers micromanaging our classrooms or need to stay up at night worrying about kids living in shelters or psychopaths wielding guns at school, I’d teach until I was a 21st century version of Mr. Chips, and as long as my aging body and mind would let me do my job the way I’ve always dreamed.

[ Image by Jerry Wong ]

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