Category Archives: Sabbaticals

School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.

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A Word or Two From the Complaints Department

stop-complaining-541x285People say, “Can’t complain” in response to the ubiquitous, “How’re you doing?” When I hear them, I think, “That should be my answer.”

Except I’d mean, “I have no right to complain,” which is to say, “I’d like to gripe about my petty troubles but would a. bore you and b. look unappreciative of my prosperity, good fortune, and privilege, especially compared to people who might complain and don’t.”

No one ever says, “I can complain.”

After my high school’s graduation, I begin a year-long paid sabbatical, so complaining is absolutely out. Every day, someone asks about my plans—I have it down to one sentence—and whether I’m excited, relieved, elated, grateful. Actually they say, “You must be fill-in-the-blank,” and I say “Of course I’m fill-in-the-blank,” but those emotions don’t—you know me—cover it.

Sometimes, on a short vacation, I feel that “hurry up and relax” pressure because time’s awastin’ on stress relief. I have a similarly paradoxical feeling now. “This is a once in a lifetime break,” I tell myself, “you better Get Something Done.” Then comes apprehension, fear, anxiety.

I want to confess I’m worried, but colleagues would sneer and think themselves better suited for this opportunity. They might punch me in the stomach.

My one sentence plan is to study schools that don’t give marks and alternative means of assessment that highlight intrinsic academic motivation. The next natural question is “Are you going to visit?” Yes, but have had barely a moment to contact schools that don’t give grades. Which begins my struggle:

  • Fantasy: I make amazing life-long connections with teaching professionals and hang out for days at fascinating, innovative institutions. Reality: So far, I’ve been given the dates for some open houses.
  • Fantasy: To prepare for my year, I brush up on basic psychology, read philosophy and other writing relevant to motivation (along with stuff about academic motivation), and take copious notes. Then, during my sabbatical, I contact authors to chat via Skype. Reality: I’ve read the introductions of a couple of books I got for my iPad. I don’t know how to Skype.
  • Fantasy: I begin writing a book and sending the opening and chapter outline to publishers and take up a 20-30 page daily writing habit. In my spare time, I take art lessons, enroll in workshops with a local playhouse, get certified as a personal trainer, and catalog all my creative output from the last two decades. Reality: The collection of teaching essays I wrote ten years ago are in an older version of Microsoft Word and, so far, unrecoverable. I changed my desktop picture to a doodle I made.

I imagine expressing my doubts, but people will think I’m lazy, need to “get on the stick”—whatever that means—and have stolen a sabbatical from someone worthier. I don’t want to waste my school’s money or my precious time “off.”

When I spilled these apprehensions to a colleague back from his sabbatical, he said I should take a month off to rest and clear my mind before my big plans. I felt momentary excitement, relief, elation, and gratitude. Then I realized… I’m too far behind to do anything like that.

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Haitus Ahead

get-out-of-work-freeThe last of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching.

No thirty-third year of teaching awaits me next fall. More accurately, it won’t happen until 2015-16 because my school awarded me a sabbatical to study schools that don’t give grades. August won’t find me in a classroom for the first time in fifty years.

That news probably should have opened these five essays. I meant to say so—I tagged each essay with “Sabbaticals”—but I never revealed I’m off next year.

Why?

1. I hope next year will relieve some of the worries I’ve expressed here—and offer the chance to fix an airplane then no longer in flight—but maybe I wanted to keep exhaustion separate from relief. I’ll write about solutions later but don’t have them now. I have only questions and the spent feeling of struggling to reach a landing strip.

2. A teacher soldiering on, I thought, might have more credibility than one who has a sabbatical ahead. How can you moan when the solution to your lament is only months away? How can you explain a trapped feeling if the cage door stands ajar?

3. You may think me an ingrate. I wouldn’t have you believe I’m insensitive to the gift my school has given me. Some colleagues would never consider asking for a break. Others missed the opportunity when the school approved my proposal. Maybe I only wanted to justify the school’s choice, to demonstrate how needy I am.

4. I care about my students, and regret leaving. When a junior says, “I’d hoped to be in your class,” it breaks my heart. I can’t be happy to announce my liberation.

5. And maybe I’m ashamed, disappointed I’m so tired, tired of being so self-pitying, of looking at my devotion to this career and still asking, “How long can I go on?” Is something wrong with me that I need a break? Is something wrong with me I’m giving up?

Really, I’m not sure. Sometimes I worry—absurdly, I know—a year won’t be enough. My sabbatical, after all, isn’t truly a rest, just industry in a different direction. My proposal would never have been approved if I’d written, “Oh please let me take a personal year!” or if I’d asked, “Oh, please give me anything to interrupt the grind of grading!”

I fought the temptation to word my request exactly so.

What I came up with, however, was better. My area of study for the sabbatical seems oddly perfect for my state of mind. In focusing on intrinsic instead of extrinsic motivation, it amounts to, “What are we doing here, anyway?” In answering for students, perhaps I’ll approach an answer myself.

Given the accumulation of years, the overlapping calendars of academic quarters, the revisited and revised assignments, the insinuating syntax of quoted passages, the rolling repetition of daily schedules and teaching blocks, the conversations strangely familiar and new, the meetings about meetings past, I need to ask, “Why?”

Who knows what the 16 months of my sabbatical will be like? Right now, I’m thinking about being ready for the week, the day, the class period ahead. I won’t allow myself to consider resting, but the break lurks.

I picture returning with perspective, with energy, with conviction. I imagine being new. I know no other way to find relief. I know no other way to restart.

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The Golden Years

Teacher Effects Eternity - ThumbnailThe 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.

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Listen

lit-match-head1The third in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching.

During the first few years at my first school, I talked to an older teacher about some hot issue under discussion at the lunch table. He offered what I thought profound wisdom, and I said, “You’re right! You should say that at the next faculty meeting.”

He chuckled and shook his head, “No one wants to hear me say that.”

I thought colleagues ought to listen but understand better now. He was right both in his wisdom and his assessment of its reception. Schools can be confusing for older faculty, simultaneously deferential and dismissive. The meeting might agree and still couldn’t hear it. Old hands have experience to speak—colleagues listen politely—but schools run on youthful energy. Some veterans feel compelled to speak. Others accept the unconscious suspicion greeting remarks so far behind the times.

I’m often forgiven for being out of touch now. I’m like the colleague I remember, reluctant to contribute, generally content to listen to younger voices… until I can no longer stand to remain silent. Then, frequently, I regret speaking.

My first year I taught a class made up of budding mean-girl sixth graders, and they took a dislike to me immediately. My other sections seemed to accept my authority (or at least to like me well enough), but this group actively loathed me. They thought me rigid, unfair, and stuck-up, and, in response, I became more rigid, unfair, and stuck-up. Whatever I proposed, they opposed. I insisted, they resisted. It’s funny how quickly a class spirals downward when students distrust you, and you, in turn, come to distrust them. It took a while to learn that.

I remember the ring-leader’s name, the one who hated me most. She holds a curiously warm place in my heart because, one fateful day, we made up. “Look,” I said to her, “we just have to give each other a chance tomorrow. Let’s like each other and see what happens.” I still can’t believe it worked. What wonders come from risk. What risks we abide when young. Class morale and productivity rose. They learned to tolerate me, and I got to teach another year. It was a year of a little more self-control and restraint. Since then, they’ve all been. That’s what it means to be a professional.

But I lost something too. My job once felt volatile, filled with days of danger and unaccountable excitement. I rarely worry now—perils have faded as I’ve leaned into an even strain. “Pace yourself,” one of my early mentors told me, “don’t take anything personally.” Her strategy has worked too well. Young teachers experience a different level of vitality. Though a class, a day, or a week might run them to exhaustion, they test assumptions and believe in different outcomes. They innovate and renovate and wouldn’t say, as I caught myself thinking the other day about curriculum revision, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter much.”

No misunderstanding, please. I mean only to report where I sit. Co-workers may say they admire my energy, my dedication, my continued relevance. Some might even express a wish to become me, to be as relevant when they reach my station on the salary scale. I appreciate these sentiments. Yet veneration isn’t significance. It’s a haven for faded impact, emeritus ambition, passé originality, civil gentility. The venerable are harmless, no threat, no risk to new agendas, no meaningful obstacle or addition.

For the first few years, I howled after every graduation ceremony. On the way home in my car, I’d turn the music loud and honk the horn at no one. I felt as though I’d driven through rings of fire. I celebrated mountains and valleys, ascent and descent. I thought teaching was harrowing but, as long as June arrived, I was content. I’d not yet learned to be reliable, consistent, and composed. Students loved and hated me. Other teachers—older teachers—shook their heads. Class was consequential, real, rewarding of labor and sacrifice.

It still is, I think, but I don’t always know it.

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