Friday, October 9, 2015

Postcard to a Beginning Teacher

I was asked recently by a former colleague to share some thoughts on the work/life balance for teachers.  My colleague is teaching in the school of education at UC Berkeley and originally asked me to be part of a panel discussion.  I wold have loved to do it but my work in Portland makes that impossible for now.  We settled on some written thoughts she could share with her students.  Those appear below.  Because I seemed to explore other pursuits while teaching 33 consecutive years I guess I had a reputation of figuring it all out.  Hardly.  I invite comments from other teachers, especially beginning teachers because I know full well that it's intensely personal and the job will take over your life if you let it.  Here's my postcard:


Teaching is all consuming.  Most of us in the profession could work 16 hour days is we allowed ourselves to do so.  For morning people, like me, it is self-defeating and unproductive to keep at it when I should let go to rest or simply lighten up.  It took a while to learn that, but everyone finds their own balance after a decade or so.  
In my 33 years, I learned to recognize where and when to move away from the classroom and put some time/energy into other things.  Of course, back in the early 70s, when I began, the technology we enjoy today wasn’t around and simple things like showing a video/film or obtaining copies of a short story or other textual resources required much more time and effort.  Sometimes, if you wanted to use a particular short story, you had to type it completely.  The masters lasted only one semester, and that was it.  No saving it on a disk or in a computer file. But I know, from continuing to work with beginning teachers as a supervisor and mentor, the all consumptive quality of teaching is very much alive and well today.
As we all know, for beginning teachers, this obsession with your classroom, your students, your curriculum, even your choice of career, can have serious consequences.  Relationships suffer, personalities have been know to change, frustration and anger need to be dealt with, sometimes daily, and the predictable cycles from anticipation to depression are very much true realities that all teachers face.  As the cliche goes. "choose your battles" or as my wife, Katie, likes to say, “Is it a 2 or a 10?”  Sometimes it seems like there are only 10s.

Here’s what worked for me.  I have no silver bullets, just a description of how I managed to attempt the balance for 30 years.  After about 7-8 years, I had an “Is that all there is” moment.  To be sure, teaching remained my passion, and I felt some success and dare I say, pure joy on occasion.  All the romantic notions of teaching are gone by then and that makes some of the better days stand out even more.  I was fortunate to be working in a dynamic social science department as well as an English department loaded with consummate professionals that kept me challenged and growing.  Both departments were collaborative and filled with colleagues who also became life-long friends.  Still I wanted to do other things.  I thought about a sabbatical to travel or do research, but I never wanted to leave the classroom bad enough, I guess.  I had other interests that I wanted to develop, and my epiphany came when I realized I could do both: teach and pursue other interests.  That’s when I became conscious of time management.  Throughout the last 25 years of my career, I managed to produce two radio oral/musical history documentaries on American subcultures that fascinated me, (1979-84) Hobos and rail-riders and horse racetrack culture) act and play harmonica in a stage production about the life of Woody Guthrie, ( 1980-85) and finally, work as a correspondent for a national Thoroughbred horse magazine (The Bloodhorse 1985-2005) I did about 8-10 short articles a year along with various major feature pieces/personality profiles over the years.  Much of the time devoted to these endeavors involved weekends and summers, but not exclusively.  Some summers were spent doing BAWP activities or pursuing other education opportunities like a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer seminar on 4 Southern Women writers in New Orleans. (pre Katrina)  Enough about me!  Here’s what helped me keep the balance.  
I set priorities. One easy way to do this is to make lists. Beneath a large clip on my roll book was always an index card with an updated list. It really does help to write things down.  Even the act of making a list helps gain control over everything you need to do on a daily basis. While in the classroom, my lesson plans, organization and preparation always came first.  While teaching multiple English 3 Honors classes my paper load was enormous, but I would not allow myself to get too far behind because I held tight to some daily time to grade papers and keep plans and resources up to date and available.  Obsessive, yes, but that’s what worked for me.  There were two times that were sacred for me.  Between 4 and 6, on afternoons with no meetings, I’d plant myself in a coffee house and read essays or grade papers for my psychology classes.  Just making a dent in the stacks is crucial.  I found that if I could keep this a routine, by the time I came home, I already had something done and I could  listen actively to my wife discuss her day, indulge myself in a quiet dinner,  or catch up on world news/pop culture (both are vital for teachers) and perhaps some junk TV to just escape.  While writing for the horse magazine I’d often have a 24 hour deadline.  So, I began weekends by getting up fairly early (6:30 on Sat. but never on Sunday) getting some laundry done, grade a few papers while at a coffeeshop and then by 10:00 just stop and don’t think about school until Sunday afternoon.  Often, I’d make sure handouts, books and other things needed for Monday were in place before I left on Friday afternoon.  Most teachers do that normally, so it was no big deal.  
Again, when you have my kind of obsessive personality along with the need to put time in with other passions, it can conflict with personal relationships.  Granted I did not have children of my own, but there was a 4 year period in my life when my significant other was a woman with a 6 year old son, so I did assume all the responsibilities of a step-parent on occasion.  That’s no substitute for having children of your own, but I  did experience how important it is to compartmentalize and prioritize and just plain sacrifice your own interests and spend quality time with your family, whatever form that may take.  
To conclude, let me offer some general advice.  Acknowledge that being a full-time teacher will consume you if you let it.  There is never enough time, there is never enough you can do for students, you will rarely, if ever get caught up on anything, but there are things you can do about that. Try not to do anything school-related on Saturday.  Just one day a week that is yours alone can work wonders.  Try to set an evening time, i.e.. 9:00 pm when you don’t do any school work. I learned from a Norwegian educator who once did some research at El Cerrito HS that American teachers feel they have to grade everything.  She told me that in Norway, students might complete 3 assignments and choose one for grading.  I found that helped reduce the massive paper load and enabled me to feel more in control of my classes and ultimately my life.  I also placed more value on formative assessments and self-assessments by students when possible.  These are the kinds of things many young teachers feel pressure about doing because of the current test culture affecting morale.  They are, however, strategies that are useful, productive, and valid and ought to be explored through collaboration with colleagues. 


Finally, because it is vital for teachers to share some of their personal lives with students, you must maintain that life, explore other interests, take a few risks and put some time and energy into passions you may have neglected.  You’ll be doing something great for your own mental health and have plenty to share with students as you build those important relationships.  When you get particularly angry or frustrated, remember that both teachers and students have tremendous resiliency.  Get back on the horse right away and do what you know you were born to do.  Final thought, don’t let anyone tell you that you might be burning out.  People used to ask me if I felt burn out when I expressed anger or frustration or even outrage at some of the things teachers are asked to do or the loss of autonomy that often comes down from on high…it’s possible to be just as passionate and caring in the classroom while feeling all the emotions that come with the complexity of teaching today.

1 comment:

Jill E. Thomas said...

Thanks again for sending this "postcard" and a reminder of your blog, which I used to read and it had slipped off my rotation. The image of the stages of the teacher's year was one I was looking for to include as a prelude to our teaching panel tomorrow night. So you helped me out in multiple ways. Thanks as always!