#184: The American English Teacher Makes A To-Do List



The number and the analogy may have been different,
but I swear I said to at least two of my colleagues today,
“Do you ever feel like a web browser with 2,879 tabs open?”
And both of these colleagues said the same thing:
“All. The. Time.”
If I could make a catalogue of all the issues
that seem pressing to me on a minute-by-minute
basis over the course of my teacher work day,
there may indeed be 2,879 items in that list.
To test the theory, I took 20 minutes of my prep
period, got out my notebook, and wrote at the top
of a blank page: To Do. When I was finished,
I had two pages and they looked (please excuse
my scrawl) like this:

And I’m starting to realize of late, as if for the
first time in my career, not only is it true that
teachers (especially English teachers)
have 2,879 things to think about and do,
but that, finally, that’s not okay. It’s absurd, in fact.
The teaching gig has become a kind of a
mad juggling act, trying to keep in the air
and not drop a hundred different things at once
while trying to do a credible job,
while trying to meet expectations that seem
almost superhuman or messianic,
while trying to be all things to all people,
while coming to terms with the fact that
as the work gets harder, the expectations
become higher, and as teachers coming into
the field seem to me better prepared,
smarter, more progressive, more caring,
more effective than they have ever been,
the difficulty of the work they’re expected
to tackle has increased to a level that far surpasses
what their preparedness, their intelligence,
their pedagogical acumen, and their kindness
has equipped them to do.
And I fear this response even while
I know in my heart of hearts it’s not true:
Michael, you’re just getting old, tired, burning out;
it only seems twenty times more difficult
because you’re twenty times closer to
retirement than you used to be.
No, I say, hell no. It is not my imagination
and it is not my age and I am not burning
out. I only sometimes despair that I will
never see a day when education works
the way I know it could work, when
teaching and learning are at the core
and the system is built to support
this herculean humanitarian effort,
when theory and practice come together,
when the mantra transcends this line
from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.


Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

6 thoughts on “#184: The American English Teacher Makes A To-Do List

  1. Eek. I was overwhelmed with meetings last week, and we’re prepping report cards at the moment, as one mini-course ends, and I’m starting a new one, an inquiry course that I have to cross fingers over, and I’m in the middle was what will be a 60 page paper for my Masters course, but even so, your list looks longer than mine!

  2. No, you are not imagining it. I felt overwhelmed when I had two groups of students–4th graders in the first half of the day, 5th graders in the second half; both groups together made up around 30 students that I had to keep track of–and I realize that this number of students might make up just ONE class of six classes a middle or high school teacher must teach in the course of a regular day. I thought 30 was a lot to keep track of, communicate with parents, assess strengths and weaknesses, track progress, find strategies for tackling the challenge of teaching to many different learning styles, backgrounds, aptitudes. Teaching IS overwhelming, and the responsibilities asked of teachers ARE absurd, and teachers are definitely NOT paid enough for the time that they put into their work in and out of the classroom. You have waves of sympathy beaming out at you from over here on the East Coast, my friend. If you are a teacher in France, you get two weeks of vacation every six weeks. Now that is WAAAAAAY more civilized. During my five years of classroom teaching in the public school system I fantasized about moving to France many, many times.

  3. Bravo! You despair “only sometimes”? By that measure, I say you’re doing just fine. But the rest of your beautifully articulated post tells me otherwise. You are spot on: the demands ARE absurd, the expectations ARE increasing, and it is NOT okay. I’m a 13-year veteran of the middle school ELA classroom, and I’ve taken a personal leave of absence this year to figure out whether I want to continue to allow my conviction that education is (or can be) the great equalizer to be stomped on by the very institution that is supposed to support it. I look forward to following your journey.

    1. Thank you, Elena. I wish you the best of luck towards clarity in your leave of absence. I think you’re mighty brave. My leave of absence will come significantly later than yours. I don’t want to be counting down. I’m resisting, but it becomes more challenging every year. Cheers.

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