It seems strange to be starting this blog at the end of another school year instead of at the beginning. The school building is empty. Final exams are graded; bulletin boards are shrouded in white butcher paper in darkened classrooms. The desks are grouped in the center of the room. Lockers stand open. Papers flutter in the summer breeze. Where are the stories? Where is the life of the mind?
The days are hot now, and the sky goes fiery at dusk. Baseball stadiums across the country are alive with the sights and smells of night games. Public swimming pools stay open late. There is nothing on television, not that there is every anything on television. These are the days of ice cream and endless sunshine and beach barbecues.
Somewhere, some unlucky soul is prepping for summer school. I am one of the lucky ones. I am unemployed for the next nine weeks. But don’t fret: I get paid on the twelve month plan. Take a little less each month in order not to worry about money in July and August. For people like me who do not save well, it is a blessing.
Over the years, whenever interviewing new teaching candidates, I inevitably hear several tell me they are attracted to teaching because of the time off.
Yeah. The time off.
After all, we work only until three o’clock most days, get two weeks’ vacation at Christmas, and then there is summer.
For me, teaching is an all-consuming practice. I even dream of the classroom in my sleep. Sure, it is not the same as policing an American city or serving in Iraq, but it is a stressful, intense job. It is something one should be called to do, a vocation. It is not for people who want more time off.
When I finish my day on campus, I have two to three hours of grading papers and lesson planning each night. Even though I have taught most of my course materials before, I am constantly rereading the novels, plays and stories with my students. In addition, I read research material and teaching journals, newspapers and magazines for interesting articles to give my students, and of course, I am always reading new books and plays to teach in the future.
Even in summer, teachers are reading and studying. Some take classes; others make do with a workshop or in-service.
This year, my colleagues and I in the English Department are attending a week long workshop at UCLA, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. Not one of us is being compensated for the eight plus hours we will spend in the classroom each day for a week, nor will be receive any pay bump for attending this workshop. We go because we want to learn, and we want to bring whatever techniques or methods we learn back to the classroom in September.
Teaching is a difficult job, but don’t get me wrong: I love it. Sure, some parts are monotonous, like grading seemingly endless stacks of student papers written by people who have little to say sometimes, and even less life experience to draw upon. But there is always a surprise buried in those stacks, or may be a few surprises: some student-writers may have something unique to offer, some turn of phrase that is poetic, or some interesting take on a novel we have taught a hundred times. That is the magic: students often see things in a brand new light, a fresh perspective that teachers may not see, or have forgotten in the years of teaching the same book over and over.
What really keeps me coming back each September is the chance to engage people in a conversation about literature and writing. May be this year, I can push them just a bit further, make them think a bit more, make my own discoveries about the mysteries of writing and storytelling.
My desire to be a teacher comes out of my life long need to be a student. I had a difficult time in school. I attended Catholic schools through high school, and my parents were not well off. I either worked on campus to pay my tuition, or I worked at odd jobs through the years. Still, whereas my students have nice cars and the freedom to concentrate completely on their studies, I did not have such luxuries. In fact, my teachers would most likely be surprised to see me in the classroom today. I was the one falling asleep in the back of the room because I had to work a late shift the night before at the warehouse. I was the one who consistently failed the quizzes because I was forever behind in my reading. Even today, I feel like the slowest reader on the planet. But I persevere. I do not give up. Today, I know that I love to learn; it is the fire in my gut that drives me to read and study and write, and this drive makes me a passionate advocate for working in a classroom.
There is nothing like a year making a turn toward the fall, the smell of new books and pencils, the scratch of a pen across a page, the tap, tap, tap on the computer keyboard, and the frosty fire of a Friday night high school football game.
So beginning this blog at the end is an open invitation. A teacher’s year never really ends. And every year is another chapter, another chance to read and study the story of us, of hopes and dreams and love and sometimes, laughter and deep, deep sadness. It is all right there, in that now empty room with the ghostly desks on the quiet campus. If you listen, you will hear the students talking and laughing, the papers, the pencils, the demands, the difficulties, the challenges. It is the greatest of stories in the greatest of arenas: the classroom.