20 blog entries later, and the summer break comes to a close. Teachers report back to their schools in my district on Monday. Time to take stock. Time to look ahead. It’s been a strong summer. I blogged, I wrote fiction, became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, agreed to marry a couple of former students, taught my son to ride a bike independently, took a trip to the beach, a couple of weekend camping trips, writers camp in Moraga, California, attended my 30th high school class reunion, watched two seasons of The Walking Dead, one season of Orange Is The New Black, recorded vocals for the new Here Comes Everybody album, helped my wife paint the bathroom, and did some reading. No, I did not finish Moby Flipping Dick. But I did finish a novel by my friend Rob Yardumian, The Sounds of Songs Across the Water, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and a book by another friend, perhaps the best book on the writing life since the famous one by Annie Dillard, Joan Frank’s Because You Have To: A Writer’s Life, oh, and I drank some good bourbon.
It’s been, I suppose, a relatively busy, productive, satisfying summer. Partly because of this, perhaps, because I’d love it to continue on forever, I am now coming to terms with a serious case of the going-back-to-work blues. I suspect even if my summer was not nearly so stellar I’d feel it nonetheless. The beginning of the new school year has always been bittersweet. On the sweet side, the rhythm of the school year gives a structure to life once again, because, as I wrote about earlier regarding the summertime blues, unstructured time can be the surest way into the pit. I’m anxious to see my colleagues again, lucky and blessed as I am to work in a school where I am hard pressed to think of anything negative to say about a single soul who works there. I mean, to be honest, I could do it, but it would be a stretch, and it would be minor stuff, never anything that makes being there anything but pleasant and happy. And, with new systems and revised curricula and strategies, each year brings with it a healthy dose of adventure, novelty, and thrill. Finally, I’ll end the list of sweet stuff and begin the list of bitter stuff with the same item: it’s always a wild ride to meet so many brand new human beings who will now become a huge part of my life for the next 9 months. You never know what you’re going to get.
Because for the past two years or so I have taught 11th graders and only 11th graders, when I go into the classroom on the first days of the new school year, I will be faced with nearly 200 individual students that I have never met before in my life. So I would say that the thing that creates the going-back-to-work blues for me more than any other thing is this sense, a very real sense, of the monumental task I am about to undertake. The amount of energy or gumption or confidence (and maybe skill) it takes to acquaint yourself with and direct the intellectual habits of 200 brand new human beings–and sustain that over a nine month period–is daunting, to say the very least. That kind of power, if harnessed, could perhaps solve the energy crisis. Just wire up a bunch of teachers to the grid, man. Problem solved.
I’ve got to learn all my students’ names. I should like to know something about them. I need to find out what makes them tick. I need to figure out which ones of this group of 200 are on top of their skills and which ones will need extra help. I need to assess which ones will be allies and which ones of them will be, not enemies, never enemies, but something like, uh, I don’t know, let me start over. Which of them will be allies and which of them will provide particular challenges? I need to build a “community of learners,” supportive, respectful, safe, comfortable, and committed to the task at hand. But then there’s this pesky thing called a curriculum. I wouldn’t turn up my nose at any teacher who spends a full two weeks (which in our district is five 87 minute periods) doing nothing but community building activities. But we can’t afford that kind of time! With furlough days continuing to shorten our school year and absolutely no lightening of the load (in fact the load has become heavier than it has ever been and the stakes higher than ever), we’ve got to hit the ground running.
So, perhaps by October I will know all of their names. I will never be able to pronounce some of their last names. When we have our first parent teacher conferences toward the end of Autumn, I will be terrified of not being able to place students in my mind’s eye when the parent tells me their names. In March, I guarantee you that I will mortify some student by calling him or her by the wrong name. And then next fall, when I see some of these kids for the first time after another lovely summer break, their names will have escaped me. This is the reality. I wish it were otherwise–because I believe in the core of my teacher heart that the surest way to help a student academically is to KNOW a student personally and meaningfully, and this is especially true of the students who need extra help. The kids who are good at being students would be successful in spite of or despite almost anything I do. But the kids who struggle need me–but they don’t know it–and they will hide from me, try to disappear, and some of them will be successful at this–because in that single class of 35 kids amongst a teacher/student ratio of one to nearly 200, it’s easy to do.
So my going-back-to-work blues has to do with a certain amount of anxiety about how difficult the job is and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can sometimes be, and also with not just a tiny bit of stage-fright. A reality of the teaching profession, I think, even for veteran teachers, especially for those who care about doing a credible job, is that those first days are kind of scary. And I think the thing that gets me through that fear every time is the knowledge and deep belief that what I am doing is the best thing I can do. I am one of the lucky few that has found a profession that is rewarding, invigorating, challenging, and profoundly important. So, despite the blues, which, as I’ve said, are hardly completely blue, I say to the new school year and to my colleagues and to my 200 brand new charges: bring it on, baby.