Yesterday I tore another June off my desk calendar, ticking off my twenty-third year of teaching. Since I’m that much closer to retirement, I’ve started to think about about my identity as ‘teacher’–and more importantly, what the loss of that role will mean for me. Before this gig, I was ‘homemaker’, marriage coming in my teens and then baby when I was barely twenty. When the marriage ended and I went back to school, I substituted ‘student’’ for ‘homemaker’ … and soon after added ‘teacher’.
For the next twenty-three years, that was me–the role I’ve played longer than nearly any other. I graded papers over the weekend, worked on lesson plans at night, ran copies before and after school, herded 125 plus sixteen-year-olds through five successive hours each day. It was up at 5 a.m. and to bed at 9. I filed and organized and decorated each August. I drooped and stashed and tore down every June.
So I’m beginning to think about what my good bye will mean for me. I need time to break it to myself gently because that’s how I deal with life. Little-by-little I disentangle myself; bit-by-bit I take another step away. Emotionally, this can’t be a ripping-off-the-band-aid type of departure.
Last week I read a wonderful book about high school in Poland, Korea, and Finland titled The Smartest Kids in the World. (This won’t be a book review, but let me suggest you get the book and start reading now, it’s that good.) Author Amanda Ripley followed three American high schoolers who were dissatisfied with their schooling in the States and became exchange students. Ripley framed her portraits of the teens with statistics and narratives about the success of the education systems in their respective countries. It was clear from the data that other countries have strengths we don’t. The American teens felt their experiences in Polish and Finnish high schools gave them something their home schools never could: higher expectations, greater social freedom, schooling and teachers held in higher esteem. (Korea was a mixed bag because of the hagwon system of after-school tutoring sometimes referred to as cram-school.)
The book reminded me there is plenty I’ve become disenchanted with over the past twenty three years. Teachers now walk in lock step, we’re continually testing and reviewing data, we’ve seen our pay and benefits shrink year after year. When I was a fresh, wide-eyed teacher I couldn’t understand the jaded, worn out senior teachers. Now, sadly, I do. So somehow in the next few years I need to figure out what memories I’ll let define my teaching career. And I’ve started to cherish those times I know are coming to a close like reading long passages of literature aloud, conferencing with students about their rewrites, and connecting teens with a new favorite book.
A few years ago our then-new principal started the practice of reciting the pledge after morning announcements. Seven hundred voices join together in a poignant tradition, one that brings back my own school days.
From the back of my room, I watch my motley assortment of teenagers–diverse in race, economic status, sexual orientation–pledge their allegiance to our country, the God of their understanding, and each other, and I am moved, at times, to tears.
This, I’ll surely remember.