Tag Archives: career in teaching

Who’s Counting? One Last One More

Oh my. I found it emptying one of my file cabinets. What IS this thing?

One for the road. Last tango. One tin soldier. Last one out. One trick pony. This final one is especially fun because the word “one” can be an adjective to describe how many tricks the pony can do. This pony can only do one trick. Or, the word “trick” can be an adjective to describe the pony, in which case, the pony is somehow tricked out, or deceptive, or defective. I have always preferred this second interpretation, and when I have heard the lyric, “One trick pony rides away,“ I have always thought, now that is one weird, special pony. Until I realized, of course, that the lyric was actually, “One tin soldier rides away,” and then my whole theory goes a little bit out the window. Today, Wednesday, June 22, I have been both a tin soldier and a tricked out or trick pony, as I returned to the school house one last one more time to pick up all of the stuff that didn’t fit inside the Honda Fit.

It did not take me long. I listened to no music. I packed up my turntable and my audio stuff, I made one more box full of books, I boxed up my records, left some goodies and a note for the new tenant, and I was out the door. I gave a big hug to Dee Ann and another big hug to my vice principal, Ken, and I started up my engine. Then I realized I had forgotten something. So I retrieved the key that I had returned two times already, went back into my room the very last time, and picked up the forgotten item. If I was superstitious, I would have thought there was something in my not being able to leave. Thank goodness, I am not superstitious.

I am making good on my promise to finish listening to the classroom music library, even in abstentia from the classroom. So I’m spinning Elvis Costello and the Imposters, The Boy Named If, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, Cheap Trick’s In Another World, Black Country New Road, black midi, and Bowie while I attempt to “bash out” over the next 24 hours one last one, one last entry in this series of blog entries counting down the days until retirement. After leaving Wednesday morning, there are no more days left until retirement. I am retired. To solidify that fact, I got a happy retirement card out of the mailbox today from my last principal, Kathy. If she knows, it must be a real thing. I am retired. There, I said it again.

And the way I think I’d like to close is by following up on an earlier promise, after having completed the list of the 10 things I won’t miss about teaching, to make the list of the 10 things I will absolutely miss about teaching. I arbitrarily choose the number 10–I mean, the choice is not arbitrary, but simply follows a long list-making tradition–and who am I to mess with that? As I begin, though, I have no idea if I can make it to number 10 or if I will need way more than 10. Nevertheless, there must be a list. Let the listing begin. These are the things I will miss about teaching, things I will miss about being a public high school English teacher, in no particular order.

  1. I will miss my school, the actual, physical school, the place I have spent 37 years of my life, first as a student, then as an educator. It’s nothing super fancy. Initially, it wasn’t even designed all that well. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, and even after extensive expansions and remodels, even though parts of it are way more beautiful than they used to be, it’s still, you know, as schools tend to be, rather institutional. But it is a place in which I have always felt AT HOME. I’ve already written a poem about this building and its magical properties. I had the opportunity to read it to the staff during our end-of-the-year luncheon. I don’t think I could possibly say it better or differently a second time around, so I’ll just link to it here: A Love Poem for My School. At least for the next two years, because I have “business” there in the form of a 16 year old drummer boy and student, I predict I will be back there often.
  2. I will miss the young people. I have found teenage human beings to be inexhaustibly interesting: surprising, funny, inspiring, energetic, exasperating, exhilarating, talented, deep thinking, tolerant, compassionate, courageous, super weird sometimes, silly, and, for the most part, good people.
  3. I will miss those a-ha moments. Either one-on-one with a student or with a group of 30 simultaneously, there are these moments when an understanding, a kernel of knowledge, an insight, a communal truth is reached and revealed–and it is as if the earth is shaking under my feet, my hair stands up on its ends, actual chills of excitement bristle through my entire being. It is exhilarating and profound, and in these moments one feels as if teaching is the absolute greatest thing on the planet–and I am not talking about moments when I am brilliant. I am talking about those moments when students rise to occasion in the biggest possible way. The greatest insights always come from that direction. And in these moments of engagement with students, the idea that I am “working” seems preposterous. This is fun. This is play. It may be brainy play, but that’s how it feels to me. Absolutely joyous.
  4. I will miss the planning and creating. It’s the only thing, at least in the last 15 years of my career or so, that I have not begrudged doing outside of work hours. Planning a unit or lesson, creating materials for that unit or lesson, choosing the readings, making decisions about things I want students to do and learn, finding funny or silly things with which to grab the young people, and having the privilege of sharing with my students something I am truly excited about, something I believe will blow up their minds in unique and important ways, even if it is simply introducing them to another famous person they’ve never heard of–this has been my bread and butter and one of the most enjoyable things about the job.
  5. I will miss the commute–not because I luxuriated inside of it, but because it was so short. It took me five minutes to drive to work, about 15 or less to bicycle there, and I have never been able to understand (because I guess I just didn’t need to) why anyone would want to drive an hour or more every day to get to their jobs. What a gift it has been to live in the neighborhood where I teach. But, as short as my commute was, there was still a kind of ritual about it. There was talk about how during quarantine people got kind of bugged by not getting inside their car twice a day for the commute. I understand that a little bit.
  6. I will miss taking on student teachers. In my world, we call them interns. I think over the course of my career I have taken under my proverbial wings about 10 individuals embarking on the journey towards becoming certified classroom teachers. On average then, I’ll host an intern once about every three years. The mentoring of a new teacher is exceedingly rewarding. In part, because teachers for the longest time (and often still) work in isolation, hosting a student teacher upends this isolation; it makes everything I do on a moment to moment basis as part of my gig suddenly explicit and visible. I have to talk about my craft in ways that I don’t talk about it with anyone else–and that’s good for the intern, sure, but for me, too, it’s often revelatory. Why am I doing that? What was the thinking behind this move or this choice? Why did I say that? How is the stuff that I do perceived or understood by the students or another adult in the room? What effect might this have? Pushing that button or moving this lever: what happens? Mentoring can be painful when things go sideways, but the triumph and pure joy over the victories makes it all worth it. And there have been victories in every case. And when Spring rolls around and the intern is ready to fly solo, what a gift there is then of TIME–to breathe, to plan, to create, and, because a student teacher never takes on a completely full load, to teach those classes WELL and EFFECTIVELY that are still in my responsibility. So interns, if you have been mine, from the deepest well of gratitude, I thank you! John, Mary, Maggie, Jessica, Ellery, Ty, Chuck, Max, and Erin–and a few others whose names I can’t recall right now because in just a few cases, I spent less time with them or shared them with another teacher. And thank you, Lewis and Clark College. Every intern I took on–except those ones whose names I can’t remember–came from LC, my alma mater for both my B.A. and my M.A.T.
  7. I will miss the silent classroom before any teaching. That’s a nod to Ralph Waldo Emerson, there. He was talking about silent churches and preaching, but it provides for me an almost perfect parallel. I love being in my room when it’s empty. I also love being in my room with 30 students who are all writing silently. The energy of the thought in the room is almost palpable, and to me, sacred. Also, and rare, those moments when a question or a problem is posed and there can sometimes be a whole minute of silence before someone speaks. There’s no way to monitor what’s actually happening inside each skull without an EEG hooked up to every kid, but there is a feeling in that silence sometimes of 30 brains inextricably thinking in tandem.
  8. And in related news, I will miss the resonance in the hallways and in the new commons, and those times, alone or almost alone in the building, where I would test out that resonance by singing something at the top of my lungs as I walked through the halls.
  9. Paradoxically, I will miss the feeling, the perpetual feeling, of always falling short of where I want to be–in terms of my skills, in terms of my relationships with all the human beings in the mix that is public education, in terms of the unity between what I believe and what I actually do, because of my own shortcomings or the systemic limitations and realities of the institution. The learning is never done. I have never “arrived.” I have never felt finished. And I have never completely and 100% to my satisfaction “figured it all out.” That was once a kind of goal of mine. I have finally and at long last let that baby go.
  10. And I will miss my colleagues. It might be impossible to put into words how I feel about these people. I will try. They have been inspiration and comfort. They have been a constant–a stabilizing and grounding force. They have been the source of endless amusement. They have been my teachers and collaborators, co-commiserators, and co-conspirators. They have been fonts of wisdom. They have been phenomenal role models. They have been friends. They feel like family. Most all the teachers over the years that have retired before me, even the ones I once considered friends, have, for all intents and purposes, kind of just disappeared from my life. I have, though, such strong feelings of connection and love for so many of the people that I worked with in our school house, that I want to endeavor to the very best of my ability to remain connected to this extraordinary community. I know my life would be diminished without these lovely people somehow still involved in it–so it is my deepest hope that these threads will remain strong. Only time will tell for sure, but for now, my parting does not feel like a final goodbye, more like a transition, a changing of the guard. The only final goodbyes come at the end of a life–and I have lost a number of colleagues over the years, but only one that I would have considered a close friend. Our beloved and controversial drama coach, Steve Quinn, died a year before my own father passed what must be at least a decade ago now. Steve did not have a chance to retire before a cancer took him away–but his legacy is strong to this day and I think about him often. One of the last things I pulled from my wall was a picture of him on a flier for a scholarship fundraising event in his honor.
The core subjects: Science (Jack, Richard, Allison), Social Studies (Megan, Josh), English (Cresslyn, Laura, Jill), Math (Tom) and Todd, a department almost unto himself. This photo was a retirement gift from my friend Josh, long-time co-teacher-history-counterpart and friend on the other side of the wall.
The late great Steve Quinn

There are things, I realize, as I wrap up this last entry in the countdown toward retirement, about which I have not yet had the opportunity to speak–at least in this forum. For the stories, the specific memories, a catalogue of shortcomings and blessings, one would have to turn back to the poems, many of which, or almost all of which, can be found in the poetry page or the teaching page on this blog site, and that I hope to collect and publish, someday very soon, into a book or two or three. Until then, I thank you for reading, for sharing this momentous experience with me, and for your support. I might take a little break from the blog at this point–but I have a feeling that break will be a short one. I’ll be back before you know it, likely before you realize I had been away.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 11, 2017

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Panic at the Disco, I Mean, Schoolhouse

The year is cooking right along, cooking so vigorously along, in fact, that this is only my second entry in this new series I’m calling a Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year. Yes, the year is cooking right along, interrupted briefly on only two occasions and constantly punctuated by a third. We took a brief respite for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago for a bomb threat evacuation, today, we administered the PSAT to all our sophomores, and this fall, we have experienced the phenomena of a missing English teacher. The three events are unrelated, but worth noting together in this moment because . . . well, because I’m finding an opportunity to breathe and reflect just now for the first time in more than a month, and because these three items bubble to the surface of my teacher brain first, followed closely by the grading and planning I still need to do for tomorrow.

Yeah, we had a bomb threat. At first, we thought it was a false alarm, having done a lock-down/lock-out drill the day before and having already experienced the obligatory monthly fire drill, but as they evacuated us, told us to keep moving away from the building almost all the way up the hill to the road, and then redirected us back around the school and into the grandstands at the football field around the police vehicles already in the lot, we realized that this was no accident and it was no drill. It started to rain. We were outside for about an hour in the rain. A few kids were rattled by the experience, but not many. Teachers and administrators seemed pretty chill. They pumped music into the grandstands inspiring a spontaneous dance party while we waited. It appeared that most kids were having a great time not being in their classes. And from the photos it looks like teachers were none the worse for wear either. Turns out, no bomb. No danger. We all piled back inside the schoolhouse to resume the teaching and learning. On that same day, I acquired a gift to my classroom:

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The Harvard Classics, Five-Foot Shelf of Books, all 50 volumes, pristinely preserved and well cared for, late edition, circa 1965. Now I have Cicero, Plato, Pliny the Elder, The Imitation of Christ, and the complete poems of Robert Burns in my classroom library! Now that’s da bomb. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There has been no news in the last couple of weeks about whether or not they caught the prankster, not the one who gifted me the books but the one who called in the bomb threat that precipitated the arrival of my books.

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These Teachers Are Also Freaked Out

Today, things came to a screeching halt one more time as we administered the PSAT to every sophomore in our school who was brave enough to show up. Most of them were brave enough, I’d say. In the group of 25 I helped to proctor, only 3 were absent. Last year on this day or a day or two before, some fool accidentally delivered test booklets too early, thus, breaking the rules of the test, thus, getting the entire school suspended or prohibited from administering the test. I wrote a poem about that last year. We redeemed ourselves this year, though, as no rules were broken and it appears the testing went off without a hitch. I am aware of no hitches.

Standardized tests. I hate them. Generally speaking, I’m against them, but as I am a kind of “arm of the state,” I must play along, and I play along so far as to encourage kids to attend, and I say, to those for whom these kinds of things matter, that the more opportunities they get to take the practice (studies show), the better they will do when the real one comes around: hence, the state of Oregon spending $$$$$$$ to make sure all sophomores in the state get this opportunity. It’s kind of an icky feeling, but at least I’m not lying.

And finally, at the end of an English Department meeting held in the very last hour of the day to talk about course options for seniors who currently, as it appears to most of us, lack options, we long at last had a conversation about an elephant that’s been in the room with us from the very first day of our teacher preparation week before the first day of school. One of our colleagues had gone missing.

No, he’s not a missing person, per se; he was not a victim of foul play; he just didn’t show up for work. Most of us know practically nothing except for that there was some kind of conflict that needed resolution. Almost completely in the dark, we were. We do know that finally, after a long month of a substitute and then a week and a half of a substitute for the substitute, our admin team was finally able to hire a new English teacher. She will join us on Monday and there will be much rejoicing. But at the end of this meeting, one of my dear, esteemed colleagues said, Can we have some closure here about this disappearing teacher? And so we spontaneously had some closure. We vented. We celebrated. We shared a memory or two, some fond, some not so much. We realized how much history we shared with this guy and with each other. There was some love in the room. We promised to have a drink later as a goodbye ritual for our teacher colleague who has disappeared. What a long, strange trip it’s been: month two of an English teacher’s penultimate year.

 

 

 

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