The fourth in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…
We teachers affect eternity. We’re told so, and it’s true. Though I’ve always taught in small schools, you can multiply the average number of students per year by the years I’ve been in classrooms and reach, conservatively, 2,000 or so. That doesn’t seem large compared to eternal crowds gathered by public school teachers. Still, it’s a lot, and the memory of individuals in that crowd might suggest numbers matter. Classes and faces stick with me. Had I stayed at one school, children of former students would appear to resurrect recollections of their parents.
I appreciate notes and emails from ex-students. I’m pleased they remember me at all and moved they take the trouble to tell me so. Cards and letters go into a special file to bolster my confidence on dark days. I’m grateful. I am.
That said, eternity isn’t solicitous. She smiles when she pleases, and you cannot—cannot—ask for affection. She is coy because eternity continues. She isn’t finished, and perhaps your effect will wane. Maybe it’s waning now.
So gratitude won’t fuel careers. Imagine you desire wealth and find gold dust everywhere. Sure, it’s only dust, but it accumulates quickly—in a scoop of earth, in the still pools along a stream, on the bottoms of your boots when you walk home. You’re happy to put it aside in bags that gather by the door. Then, slowly, you notice supplies dwindling. And you no longer find the dust casually. It takes energy to shovel stream beds, to pan the soil. You know the process too well. Seldom do you find that boot-bottom gold anymore.
I’ll stop because I don’t like listening. I sound ungrateful. At first, teaching’s rewards came easily. I recognized I reached people and drew inspiration from it. Repetition, however, inured me to its pleasures. The once novel becomes regular, and the regular becomes, at times, tedious. If you’re going to pan for gold, you need either abundant returns or easy access.
The worst combination is inadequate returns for immense effort. Yet that’s what many teachers experience, particularly when, for good or bad reasons, their students start to see them as serviceable and undistinguished, another part of the place. “Oh, you have him,” I overheard a freshman saying in August, “hasn’t he been around for, like, forever?” She wasn’t talking about me, but I fear her 14 year-old “forever” might include me.
Go to sites offering advice on teacher burn-out, and they abound with inspiration for keeping yourself fresh and relevant, for capturing students’ curiosity. These sites suggest you teach familiar material in unfamiliar ways, choose new books rather than repeating ones you’ve encountered multiple times, experiment with new technology to revitalize students’ interest, organize your work and streamline your effort, come to school earlier so you can leave the job behind as you exit the building, find some hobby—perhaps keeping a blog—to curb obsessive thoughts about students’ progress, make a change by teaching new subjects or at new grade levels, and establish fixed times to talk to other teachers about their strategies for avoiding burnout.
Experienced in these methods—there are more, but these I’ve tried—I see them as laborious access to once abundant gold. Perhaps it isn’t fair to group them under the command “Work harder” because the returns are greater. New books and subjects are intellectually stimulating, always exciting. Yet the start-up costs—studying and planning—wear you down when students may not know the difference or not appreciate fresh materials and methods any more than old. New technology is especially laborious, as adolescents tolerate trial and error poorly. Imagine watching someone tie his shoes for the first time.
Sometimes my mind drifts. I’m in a brownstone with eight to ten devoted young scholars. They love learning as I do, know its labors well, and turn simple instructions into brilliant, illuminating insight. We read new books together, and most discussion comes from students. They don’t worry as much about getting into college as they do about understanding what’s before them today. They use technology without worshiping it and don’t automatically equate “new” and “good.” Though I’m their teacher, I need no plans. I nudge them in one direction or another but mostly revel in their excitement, which isn’t admiration or appreciation for me but the joy of having the company of an enthusiastic guide.
Gold dust rains, and I don’t think about eternity or labor or exhaustion.