“Go out to lunch on teachers’ first day back. And plan a vacation so that you’ll be in some exotic place on the first day of school.” Retired teachers with toothy smiles and unfurrowed brows gave me this same advice again and again in the months leading up to my retirement from teaching English and working in the curriculum office.
While their advice was astonishing in its singularity, the comments from teachers who would be returning to school in the fall varied widely:
“Lucky you! I wish I could retire!”
“Won’t you miss it? What will you do all day?”
“Congratulations. I still have [x number of years] to go if I can make it.”
“Will you come in and sub for me? I hate leaving my kids with random subs who know nothing about teaching English. It makes me feel guilty every time I have to be out.”
“I’ll really miss you! Thank you for all those lessons you’re leaving behind. I’ve learned a lot from you.”
I’ve thought of all of them this week as they returned to work to prepare for the new school year. I began the week by spending two days sorting through boxes of files that I didn’t get to in June. Though I had most of the files electronically and shared those with teachers who asked, I didn’t have time at the end of the year to sort through the hard copies so that I could recycle. I couldn’t just throw everything into the recycling bin because the files contained transparencies, paper clips, and other things that couldn’t be recycled. So I opened every single folder in eight boxes of files.
Because the weather this week has been so beautiful, I carried the files from the basement to the deck and worked outside as the birds chirped cheerfully around me. Going through those boxes ended up being an unexpected blessing rather than a chore. Even though I’ve designed a web page with free lesson packages for teachers, most of what I’m sharing there are the more recent materials I’ve developed. Some of these files were so old that a couple of folders had mimeographed sheets in them. Every English teacher I know will understand why there was never time during the school year to do spring cleaning…and why I never wanted to bother during those precious days of summer.
As I sorted the materials, I was able to remember my own growth over the years—and to reflect on some things I did early on in my career that were pretty good for a novice teacher. That, in turn, made me remember how fortunate I was to have had two very good mentors who shaped my teaching. I also discovered in those files that I had long ago started trying to add diverse perspectives to my lessons—very shortly after I came to Montgomery County, long before it became a system initiative. Sometimes I’ve wondered in recent years since I transferred to the curriculum office whether I was actually as good a teacher as I’d hoped I was. Going through those files was a particular reminder that I’d always tried hard to reach the most unreachable kids. I didn’t reach them all—none of us ever do. But when I came to the “pick-me-up folder” where I kept notes that students and parents had written me, I was blessed to understand that I’d had an impact, even on kids whose names and faces I’d sometimes forgotten. (You can bet that that folder didn’t go into the recycling bin.)
This week I’m thinking about all those teachers who are going back for yet another new start, hoping to reach those seemingly unreachable children with a glimmer of hope. One of the best things about teaching is that we get a new start each fall—and so do the children we teach.
One of my mentors gave me a wonderful piece of advice: “Never let the cynics jade you.” That stands out to me above all the things people usually say to teachers who are returning to work. It was the one reminder that never appeared in a platitude on a coffee mug during Teacher Appreciation Week. Every school staff has its cynics, and it’s hard to keep that August hope when school leaders or colleagues engage in blame rather than look for solutions.
And it’s hardest of all to keep that August hope when a cynical child who’s hurting lashes out and says hateful things before there’s a chance to build an emotional bond. For those of you who aren’t teachers, the only thing that hurts more is when a teacher’s own child says, “I hate you” in a moment of unrestrained anger. But teachers, who only have children for a year—and particularly for secondary teachers who have teenagers for less than an hour a day—it takes a steely determination to react with compassion and remind yourself that it’s almost never about you and that, like your own child, someone else’s child might not mean what he’s saying either.
While I’ve joined the ranks of those smiling retirees, I hope never to forget how hard it is for teachers who are truly committed to doing the most important work in the world. And I suspect those smiling retirees haven’t forgotten either. When I’ve wondered aloud how long it will be before I stop having school dreams, I’ve had teachers who’ve been retired for years tell me they still have them. I’ve already had two this week. (Is it like that in other professions?)
And so, dear teachers, as you anticipate another year, may your cynics be few, your successes be many, and, most of all, may your August hopes become June realities.