Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dive, Dive, Dive!

We're still alive and well, Peter and I... but that part of our lives we like to call our "annual trans-Arctic submarine voyage"--teaching school in two different public school systems--has begun. All summer long, we got used to daylight, exercise, friends, and time to think, play, and work around the house. I got a satisfying amount of writing done, and Peter finished building the walk-in closet in the attic and almost finished insulating it.

But now it's September, and we're diving for the sea floor. We'll be down here, under the ice, far from our summer lives of friends and free time, until we emerge again in June.

I exaggerate slightly. I'm going to go to Meeting for Worship today, and I'll be attending our local RPG group just as religiously as meeting. (Amusingly, it's the second place I find my spiritual community--several of my very favorite longtime Pagan community members attend week after week, and recently, a number of our Quaker fFriends have begun to join us in slaying orcs and rescuing dragon eggs. I think that Beth's game has been going on for something like fifteen or twenty years now--and the friendships shared between its members are deep and strong.)

And, of course, I'll be in attendance at That Annual Pagan Gathering once again in October. I'm already looking forward to it.

But, overall, I forget how all-absorbing teaching really is. Down here under the polar ice, there's little to remind me of the passage of time. Has it really been three weeks since my last post here? (Pause to double-check the calendar.) It really has!

Ambitious dreams I'd had for this school year--twice weekly exercise after school, and once each weekend; taking training to be a telephone support person for New Orleaneans in exile from their post-Katrina city; attending every meeting for business; being a faculty advisor for at least one student group... all these are fading away. I don't see how I can add even small commitments to the one big one--teaching high school English--I've got on my plate.

I forget the bone-weariness of the end of a day of teaching. It will fade--it does get better over the course of the year, and the September adjustment is always the worst. But it is hard to re-enter that state of perpetual exhaustion.

People think it's easy to teach school. People think that the problems in American education are the result of lazy and uncaring teachers. It is bloody difficult not to get pissed off about that. And even though, so far this year, my school days have been much shorter than in past years (I'm usually out of the building by 4--5 at the latest. Let's hear it for Year Four, and a mere 9 hour day, down from the typical 11 of my first year) when I hear the politicians calling for "extended learning time"--meaning adding another 25% to the school day or year--I know that I'll never be good enough at this job to withstand that.

I'm loving teaching this year. I can hear this voice of competence rolling out of me this year. I'm mentoring a Fullbright exchange teacher this year, too. (We carpool together, so, if you add the time I spend mentoring on the way to and from work each day, I haven't actually gotten my work-day down to nine hours yet. But I choose not to count that time as "work"--it would be too depressing if I did!) That's tremendously satisfying, too. It's exciting to step back and talk about the big picture of education with a curious, intelligent co-worker: why we have special education laws the way we do, and how to teach to multiple intelligences and learning styles; the importance of supporting independent reading and frequent writing practice; ways to get students engaged more deeply through projects and hands-on assignments as well as traditional tests and essays.

And I find the cultural compare and contrast, between India and the States, to be fascinating. It's fun.

It's exhausting.

And I don't know if I can really do another year like last year, spending 10 hours a day during the work week on teaching and planning, and another 6--8 hours each weekend on grading.

Damn. I'm whining. Sorry, guys. It's just, even having fun, I'm not totally sure I can keep the pace till retirement. I know not all teachers work this hard, and I know that both my perfectionism and the difficulty I have staying organized make teaching especially challenging to me. But I really do think that the American people are just not getting it, the ways that "education reform" has the potential to suck the life out of an educational system that, in most communities, in most schools, actually works pretty well, thank you. I really wish that people who think teachers are a spoiled "special interest group" could spend two weeks teaching in a modern classroom before they feel free to set education policy on a state or national scale.

Not gonna happen. But I do think the disrespect with which Americans view teachers and schools is related to the ebbing respect we have for education itself... and that culture of disrespect gets my nod for the most serious issue I contend with in my classroom.

*sigh*

Sorry. I meant this post to be more positive than this. I really am enjoying the victories of teaching this year already: writing groups that I think are really going to work; kids who are able to spot and discuss themes and imagery in poetry already this year; the small class sizes I have at the moment, and the sense I have of a good balance of personalities and talents in each of my classes.

Not to mention the deep satisfaction of the Fullbright mentoring thing.

But I bet the submarine guys feel a fluttering of dread as they dive deep for each new season of silent running, too.

3 comments:

Richard said...

I forget how all-absorbing teaching really is. I don't see how I can add even small commitments to the one big one--teaching high school English. I forget the bone-weariness of the end of a day of teaching.

Yes. It's hard getting back to anything demanding that you've been away from; but teaching, more than most. It is hard work; one class can tire you out. And there's no easing into it: there you are, in front of the class, the very first day. If anything, you need to be most 'on', that first day.

It will fade--it does get better over the course of the year, and the September adjustment is always the worst.

Right; you've been there, and you know how to do it, how to settle into it. It won't stay quite this bad. But it's work, hard work. Teaching, while you're doing it, takes almost all you have.

I'm loving teaching this year. I can hear this voice of competence rolling out of me this year. I'm mentoring a Fullbright exchange teacher this year, too.

Yay! You're getting on top of it. Not to make it easy (it's never that), but to take some of the weary edge off. And the Fullbright exchange teacher sounds exciting, and fun.

I'm not totally sure I can keep the pace till retirement.

Hey, one year at an ever-lovin' time! (And, no, people don't know, and don't appreciate, what teaching really is. And that hits the good teachers hardest.)

I bet the submarine guys feel a fluttering of dread as they dive deep for each new season of silent running, too.

Where did I read a mariner writing about the "Oh, God, here we go again" feeling every time you start a voyage?

As for the submarines, I remember reading that the norm is one major psychological breakdown per crew per tour.

Don't let the depth charges get you down!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your point on the disrespect that many Americans have for educators -- and the way teachers often become the scape-goats for all that is ill in society.

Teaching English and Writing is especially demanding, I think. When you have a total of 80-100 students in one semester, even one batch of papers can take away all ideas of life outside of work...

The work does make a difference, though. Students who read poetry, write ideas, and discuss the meaning of Shakespeare cannot be the same afterwards. Literature is, as my supervisor once said, the study of what it means to be human.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Richard, thank you for the supportive comments. Are you a teacher? Sounds like you either are, or know a few.

There's a special anxiety to beginning a new school year--that much I know. I think I set a record this year, with my first "back to school" nightmare coming on July 4th, just days after classes let out last spring. But it's not until the first wave of grading sets in a few weeks into the year that I really start to feel the claustrophobic nature of life on this particular kind of submarine voyage taking hold...

Anonymous, thanks for your comments, too. Some days (like today, when I got kids to write in response to the 50th anniversary of the first day of classes for the Little Rock Nine) I really do feel the difference teaching can make.

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