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A Teacher of the Year

Both Peter and I earn our living as teachers.  He teaches high school science–biology, chemistry, and environmental science–and I teach high school English.  All seniors this year, for me: they graduate tonight.
Teaching Punctuation. Orr, 1869.

Teaching offers an incredible amount of stress, an inconceivable workload, and more knowledge of the human heart than I perhaps want to have–some years, at any rate.  The best of humanity shows up in American classrooms…and the worst.
But I never need to wonder if my work has meaning in the world, and every year offers me another chance to get something right I didn’t get right before.

It is also a job with a built in seasonal cycle–perfect for a Pagan–and built-in opportunities for reflection.  Every year, I can look back on a finite packet of my life, cock my head to one side, and think about what it has all meant.

The end of every year of teaching offers its share of “To Sir with Love” moments.  Today included a glowing thank you letter from one of my students, and a hearing on another favorite student’s plagiarism. Those are the contrasts of a life in teaching: the highs and the lows always travel together.
On my way out of the plagiarism hearing, I stopped at the faculty mailboxes, and for the first time this year, I had the time to read the notices on the bulletin board, including three or four different flyers for “Teacher of the Year” awards. (Nominations were due in January.)

I don’t need an award.  I know that I am a good teacher.  Not the finest teacher I know, but good–very good, honestly.

What does that amount to? I helped a bunch of kids learn to read literature more carefully and thoughtfully this year, to write a college application essay to help rather than hurt their chances of being admitted to a school, and helped others learn how to narrow a thesis, to cite a source, and to create a proper Works Cited section in a term paper.

I also held slacker kids accountable, let other kids see on my face how deeply proud they make me, cried for them, laughed with them, and–on one memorable occasion–sang with them.

This has probably been my best year of teaching so far; it may go down as my best year of teaching ever.  (No matter how good a public school teacher becomes, there is always the possibility that the next year–the next year’s students, the next year’s administrators, the next year’s paperwork and “accountability” demands from the state–will be the year that breaks you for good.  It is one of the current realities of our profession.)

And if I do not feel that teaching is “a ministry” for me–to use the Quaker expression–still, I do feel that the manner in which I do my teaching is consistent with my spiritual values.  I am well aware that not many people have the luxury of being able to say that about they way in which they earn their rent money; I’m especially lucky in that I have always been.

Still, I don’t need a teaching award.  I don’t even want one: what would it be but a demand to dress up in uncomfortable clothes, to hear some politician or administrator I might barely respect mouth platitudes and pretend to be impressed with what I do?  An award from anyone outside of my small circle of friends would mean very little, really.

The awards that matter are the ones I give to myself.

What, then, are the accomplishments of which I am most proud, this school year?  For what do I think I deserve an award, recognition, praise… if only from myself?  What are the moments I want to celebrate this year?

There are a number of them. There was the moment, for instance, when I was talking about medieval literature, and I asked the students who enjoyed the unit to explain what they’d liked, and Max burst out, “Narnia!”

Yeah, Max… yeah.

I talk a good game; I can talk about the development of the English language, the political purposes of the King Arthur stories, and the poetic forms of Gawain and the Green Knight, but you’re on to me.  This stuff is just plain cool… because, well… Narnia.

Then there was the day John stayed after class, to have a serious talk with me about whether or not to get snow tires for his car… and the day I got to watch him try on his cap and gown.

There was the micro-unit on The Tempest–and how all the kids in the drama class actually got it, actually understood the play and enjoyed it.  There was watching Nikki and Shannon take on difficult, serious term paper topics, and turn out papers to be proud of.

There were the days Dom was late to his next class, because he was so caught up in talking about books he loved that he couldn’t pull himself away–Dom, who, until freshman year had thought he didn’t like to read.

Teaching is a hard job.  Maybe it’s only a hard job if you’re doing it right; I don’t know.  But it wears me out, it uses me up, and it leaves me with almost nothing left for the rest of my life, my friends, my spiritual community, whatever in the way of activism I am drawn to.

On the one hand, I will not mind at all when the day comes to retire.  If I won a million dollars, I would not keep teaching!  I’ve got friends I haven’t seen in ten months, a house that never gets cleaned, parents and a daughter I never get to spend time with because I’m too busy grading papers or recovering from grading papers.

But, yes, it is still true.  Despite everything the reformers have done to the profession, despite No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, MCAS and PARCC and NEASC accreditation reviews and the whole sorry mess, teaching is still a beautiful, meaningful way to earn a living.

And on that note, I hereby award myself, not The Teacher of the Year award–because that title can never go to a single person, or even a round hundred of us. Instead, I name myself A Teacher of the Year, 2014–2015. Congratulations to me–and to every other teacher in America, balancing the absurd and the sublime every day from September through June.

Thank you for your service, friends and colleagues. Thank you for all that you do right, invisibly, every day of the year.


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