Tag Archives: high school teachers

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

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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:

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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.

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Filed under Poetry, Teaching

#74: The American English Teacher is Worried about the Burnout of His Colleagues

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Perhaps, they love teaching and learning.
And while they may not love children
just because they’re children,
they love the idea of helping young
people reach their full potential,
navigate the waters of young adulthood,
use their minds well, think about important
things, become more humanely human.
It’s all noble, noble, and good.
And yet, something is amiss,
something is afoul, something is rotten
in the state of the classroom
when good teachers–when the best
teachers–consider leaving the profession
or at least leaving the public high school
because they are demoralized, defeated,
angry, and tired. Especially those coming
late to the profession, who may have
everything together except for the fortitude
of a twenty-something, these folks,
who can never retire, really, not in the usual
sense, find the forces against them
greater than their capacity to soldier on,
from the gigantic class sizes, a culture
often antithetical to intellectual work,
the impossibility of knowing students
in a way that could really make an impact
on their learning and their lives, to
the top-down and corporate driven
standards and standardized tests,
one set after another, always different
but always the same, interrupting and
displacing what good teachers do best.

And of course the best teachers
often find these things under their skin,
preventing them from sleep–
and it’s not because they’re obsessive
but because they care deeply.
But at some point they decide
perhaps that they care more
about their own health and sanity
than about the schoolhouse.
And this makes perfect sense–
but losing our best teachers is bad for schools
and bad for kids and bad for democracy.
And it’s bad for me–I will miss them
when and if they go, those who have
enriched my life and my teaching
beyond all reckoning, whose energy
and spirit and humor have prevented
in me the very burn they experience now
that makes them want to leave.

I’m not burned-out, in part, because,
despite all the issues that make
the job more difficult than it should be,
sometimes impossibly so,
I like the work far more often
than I hate the work, am happy more
often than I am despondent, and
because I have made compromises
to protect myself; but also in part
because I can see the light at the end
of the proverbial tunnel, am getting
close to this strange thing called
retirement of which the elders often speak,
and perhaps, if and when my
colleagues move off before I do,
these are the things that will
keep me going until my final
and penultimate
high school graduation.

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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching