Monday, August 24, 2009

A Retiree's Vision

Since weekends and summer are meant to be time well spent, away from the cares of school, it is odd that much of the time I have spent has been with teachers--current and former colleagues, dance teachers, writing teachers, deans, retirees. I guess the job really is in my blood. How embarrassing!

That said, this past weekend I got to spend the day with a woman who taught English with me at my first public school roost and has long been retired. She has had a house up at our lake since she was a child and reminisced about spending summers working at the small local post office or at one of the lakeside estates answering phones and planning her sabbatical. What a concept--a sabbatical. I have never had an opportunity to even consider the possibility of a sabbatical in my 23-year employment as a teacher.

As we tooled around the lake, we caught up on all the gossip. My friend is part of a group of retired teachers who attend a luncheon the first day of school each semester to celebrate the fact that they no longer suffer the tyranny of bells, papers, tedium. She had no trouble remembering that as an English teacher, particularly one who ran an outstanding newspaper, she was working all the time. She remembered the feeling that the paper work would never end, but it was clear that the nearly unendurable paper load she described had become a fading memory for her, which was a hopeful sign for me.

We reminded ourselves of the interminable “inservices” we withstood at after-school meetings, and I told her of the new ones we still face year after year--all with magical names given a district-wide importance designed to support their theory that just willing something makes it true. Boy, did we have a good laugh.

She remembered the inservice where a “Language Acquisition” expert came in to tell us how to “effectively incorporate vocabulary into our daily lesson plans.” This particular inservice trend led to ill-conceived vocabulary relay races and other equally insulting endeavors antithetical to the design of a rigorous classroom (but then again “Rigor” had not become the trend yet). As the “expert” spoke, the faculty sat in silence, some surreptitiously and some not so surreptitiously grading papers, doing crosswords, reading books, knitting, and I sat roiling in my naivete. The presenter began by suggesting we use the word “contesserate”(a word I had never heard before or since, for that matter) and then offered her suggestions for teaching such a complex word: “Have the children "air write" the new word on their palms and feel how the word sounds on their lips; then have them write all the things they think the word means and go over why they think it means these things.”


Despite the warning hands of my friends, pressed firmly into my shoulders to keep me seated and quiet (they knew me), I arose, “DO YOU THINK WE HAVE ALL DAY TO TEACH ONE WORD? AND DO YOU THINK WE ARE IDIOTS?”

At this memory, my friend laughed and laughed. She did not remember a word of the inservice itself, but she did remember this outburst of mine, “DO YOU THINK WE ARE IDIOTS?” and then laughed and laughed at how obtuse I must have been not to realize that that was exactly what the “experts” think of teachers. She knew that such a misuse of our time was to be expected and not taking it in stride was a waste of valuable personal energy. Meanwhile, I still fume at the notion that these “experts” have opted out of classrooms to spread the gospel of excellent teaching tactics to those of us doltish enough to continue the struggle, yet most of them show no evidence of actual and substantial reading, and some mangle the English language themselves. In one instance, after a series of budget twists, our own “literacy expert” was cut and in my sympathy for her--she was one who cared deeply and had the smarts to make her effective--I worked hard to get her a job I knew of at a local private school. Though she said she would take the job when it was offered, she waited most of the summer before realizing that she should not take the job because actually getting back into teaching, prepping, grading, classroom managing felt like just too much for her. Hmm, what does that tell you?

I then told my friend about one of the inservices I attended my first year back in public school after years in private schools where those in charge treated us teachers with something called respect. This time the magical term was “Backwards Planning.” After she and I finished roaring at the name of this ingenious strategy, I told her what I thought it meant: Focus and clarify your teaching goal first, then carefully plan accordingly all the steps you need to get there. She broke up again, and said, “Isn’t that just PLANNING?” Ah, once again the obvious stated obviously.

After our day on the lake and a leisurely dinner, I asked her how she survived such a lengthy career in this school district. She said, “I remember only the good times.” I looked at her puzzled, and she continued “Well, the time with friends, of course, but really the time in class with the kids.” That’s the right answer.

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