This is a letter – email, actually – I recently posted to a fellow educator and one of my earliest mentors. It came about as you might expect. He asked me, simply enough, “How did your school year go?” But for some of us in schools, the answers are never that simple. I went something like this:
He: “Is your year almost over? How did it go?”
I: “I am done only just this evening. I am glad it is over. It has been a hell of a year for a challenging number of challenging reasons.”
He: “I know what you mean. The mania and the frenzy of schooling is difficult. I have felt that way many times before.” (paraphrase).
I: “I am not sure you have. Let me tell you how it hurts.”
And then I laid it on him. The following is more or less what I wrote:
Regarding the “I am glad it is over” feeling: I feel like I am good with the mania and the pace. I feel like that is a choice we all, as teachers, collectively make – whether we feel in control of the choice or not, we are in control of it, and we do it, and I perpetrate the mania as much as anyone by participating in the manic system, submitting to schedules and deadlines, enforcing them, etc.
The thing that is needling me now is something that I first pondered in my 3rd year here – 6th year of classroom teaching – when I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what schooling was – what was it that we were doing as teachers? That was the question I was always asking, tacitly or not, in my work. It manifested in the decisions I made, the way I positioned myself at school, how I taught my classes, the identity I brought to the classroom. And it was a worthy question – still is – because it determines all of those things and everything else we do as teachers. What we think we are doing in school – our conception of what it is to teach – determines how we do our life’s work. Classroom policies, the space we create for learning, and how we define success in the classroom, among many other really significant things.
So, in my 3rd year here, I first glimpsed a terrifying possibility: What if when I finally come to understand what schooling is here – I no longer want to be a part of it? What if what school really is is not good?
This is an important question? What if I fell in love with an illusion? What if school isn’t about human potential, experience, curiosity, surprise, self-governance, and enlightenment, not about learning at all? What if it really is about sorting kids, categorizing them like beef or eggs, creating obedient workers with “good study habits” so that they can serve our economy? What if it really is about homework and grades and science fair projects and pencil and paper tests?
If it is about all of that nasty dogma, then either I subordinate my ideals to the service of that and “learn to love the bomb”, or I go to work every day and I fight against the system (which not really a system, it is people) to win small battles in a lonely war with few comrades in the service of scarcely held belief.
This is the old stuff, right? I know that. This is Horace’s Compromise – and why Sizer started CES and his other school reforms.
Okay, so, fine, right? Get over it. Big surprise that my school doesn’t perfectly fit my delicate sensibilities. Big deal that I have to put some of my idealism aside in order to go to work every day. Lots of people have it a lot worse in their jobs.
Yes, AND lots of people don’t feel the need to improve the world with their work. Lots of people are not teachers. I DO believe teachers are special. I DO believe that the work we do is fundamentally optimistic, idealistic, and forward looking – not just getting by, living through another day, but actively pursuing and effecting the change we want to see in the world.
So, these two positions are in conflict:
•Do I man up and get over it, tamp down my idealism and my need for a good fit between my work and my convictions, participate in a system that has flaws and try to value the participation and not the system, sacrifice what I think is important for the larger context of a school and a faculty and a group of people all doing the same thing, abandon my ego for the selfless goal of someone else’s vision of a better reality?
•Do I man up and get over it, stand up for my intuition, my convictions, and my beliefs because from where I stand today and what I know right now I am sure they are right and good and possible, trust in what is and has always been fundamentally with me, stop acquiescing to the impulse to accept the responsibility and the blame for when my core beliefs run afoul of institutional norms and the direction the school is going, stop wondering what is wrong with me that I seem to be the only person in the room with my set of priorities.
That question and the million, myriad ways in which it came up this year are why I am glad it is over and that I can now think about it a bit instead of constantly reacting and responding to another difficult situation.
Sometimes I wonder, what was so good about the first 5 years at this school? Were things that different in the teaching environment? Or did I just see a lot less, was my vision poorer in some way?
Sorry you asked?
See you soon.
Teaching is a hell of a job. I do still love it.