Today we were given a teacher work day on this last day before spring break. Awesome for students because they get an extra day off. Awesome for teachers, at least in our district, because the work day didn’t even fall at the end of a grading period, but rather, a couple of weeks before. So maybe, if a teacher played her or his cards right, one might even expect a little time, potentially eight hours, for something called “planning,” or for what some circles of educators call “creating curriculum,” or for a still more unusual animal identified as “collaborating with colleagues.” Sounds like absolute teacher nirvana. Sign me up!
I spent eight hours today looking at student work. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have the time to do it. But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there was just so much of it, that at the end of an eight and a half hour day, I found myself finished with about a third of the student work that had piled up. What I did not do: I did not, at the end of that eight and a half hours, put it all in boxes to cart home with me over spring break. No. I left the unfinished business in my classroom. It will be there when I get back. The only way in which I will be “doing work” during spring break might be in a moment like this one–where I am reflecting on my work life because I want to, because it might be valuable for me to do so, personally valuable, or valuable to others who share the same kind of experience or who are interested in the day-to-day lives of teaching professionals.
My work day, while productive, was disappointing. I feel bad–insofar as I got through one mountain of stuff and left another larger mountain of stuff to come back to a week and some days later. Yes, I could have avoided the whole problem by not assigning the work in the first place, but then I’d feel bad for not asking my students to do what I think they really ought to be doing to make strides as readers and writers and thinkers. Teaching in this day of the underfunded public school so often seems to be about choosing what to feel bad about. You can’t feel good about everything; in this climate and in these conditions, it’s simply impossible unless you are a mindless Pollyanna. I can feel good about a lot of things. I think I have a positive relationship with most of my students. I like my school. I love my subject matter. I love the craft and art of good teaching. I really respect and enjoy my colleagues. But our situation in public schools is dire. Skeleton crews in buildings. Programs cut. Schools closing. Overcrowded classrooms next door to empty classrooms. No new hires. Billions of dollars in budget shortfall. Head start cut. School days cut. Expectations higher than ever. Amidst all of this horrible news, today’s work day was a blessing–a blessing for which I could not take full advantage because I was so inundated. Input favorite expletive here.
Here’s another thing to feel bad about. I’m six years away from being able to retire and it will be a sad day to leave the profession in a shambles. I try to think about how things may get better. I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario that would positively turn things around in the short term. I try to imagine the state of public education getting any worse than it is now, and I shudder. In my bleakest moments, I think of the end of public schooling and what a disaster that would be for our democracy. I think of the hundreds of kids who cannot be reached and cannot be helped simply because our system is so strained and resources are simply just not available to them. It’s ugly, friends. It’s ugly. And yet, there is still, for me, so much joy in this work.
So, this is, ultimately, what I choose to feel bad about. I feel bad about not getting as much done today as I would have liked. I don’t feel bad about not taking the work home with me. I feel good about that. I cannot change the current state of affairs, so I can’t feel bad about that either, about what I can’t control–but because I’m writing here in this blog about my experiences as an educator, I hope that this might go a very small way toward raising awareness and adding to the other voices of educators who are kind of tired of being picked on, and of parents who are frightened about the educational prospects for their children. I can feel good about using my voice in this way, shouting the barbaric yawp, so to speak. Meanwhile, I’ve got nine days to rejuvenate my soul and my brain, to prepare myself for the final stretch, the relatively break-less run toward summer break, the days of which I am not counting. I can feel good about that.