I stayed up late last night. I listened to the crickets and frogs chirping. I savored what was my “last night”. Tomorrow, it is back to school. Two days ago, I started to feel the dread, the fear, the stomach grinding nausea. I hold on to today. Hold it tight to my chest as if to capture it and squeeze out each and every last drop. I dread (almost everything) about being a teacher. It is 180 days of pure, unadulterated fear. Sure there are high points – lunch with Denny Sponsler, the ceramics teacher, and awakening hidden talent in my students – but the lows, are so low. They leave me stunned and reeling with fear. One Hundred Eighty Days, I count them off one by one.
I worked hard this summer to polish my online curriculum. I wanted it to be accessible to more students and to offer additional challenges for the phenoms. I wanted it to be perfect to make the demands of graduate school more easily met. I still have several units to write. I can (and will) finish before school starts. I write curriculum with ease. Parents and school staff come to me for advice about what camera they should buy. I don’t know; what I do know is how to sequence information. That is what a teacher does: Sequence information in a logical progression. I am no expert in photography or graphic design. I do have an encyclopedia knowledge about the subject areas I teach but I rarely practice them and never as an artistic outlet. I quilt. I sew beautiful clothes. I express my ideas in three dimensions. I am not limited to the two dimensional world of photography and graphics.
Denny and I, we are the Art Department at South (even though I am in the Career & Technical Education department…) We used to be three. Denny, Mark Wald and me. Mark was the most wonderful man and exceptional artist. He lost his battle with cancer several years ago. Denny and I drifted rudderless and stunned. We spent an entire school year eating lunch quietly in my back room, often tears escaping our eyes and squeezing each others hands, smiling sad smiles through our shared pain. We would get through this pain, we assured ourselves, and we did. We were blessed with the addition of the most talented up-and-coming Art teacher in the district, Seexeng Lee. The last two years have been glorious and happy years. Our Art department once again began to win scholastic art awards and our rooms were abuzz with students engaged in the practices of mind that are required of young artists in first bloom. Seexeng, is a master of two dimensions. He teaches an authentic curriculum that speaks to students of inclusion and world culture. A curriculum that develops one’s ability to transfer what is in the mind’s eye onto a two-dimensional surface. Now he is gone. Our loss was Edison High School’s gain. Our principal forced his hand in a power-move. The reasoning behind the actions of our administration, I believe is a conspiracy, but, I will see tomorrow if I am right (or if I was wrong…but I won’t be). Who is to be the new Art teacher? I will see tomorrow in the staff meeting how school politics played a part in this new spanner in my works.
I do not do well with change. I don’t adapt quickly – unless it is a crisis – then I am the one in control. Tomorrow, the change will flow over me, leaving me numb, breathless, dysfunctional. My summer schedule, filled with late mornings, leisurely breakfasts and quiet, alone time will give way to waking up an hour before my husband and a drive into the city. That drive, from the verdant green of the Minnesota River Valley into the heart of the south side of Minneapolis is the only bearable thing about the day. One Hundred Eighty Days…of bells and meetings and parent emails and students – so many students – and noise – lots of unexpected, startling noise.
One Hundred Eighty Days worrying about my students who have such diverse background- recent immigrants, disabled students and students who come and go – students who are falling through the cracks – and the most vulnerable of all – my Native American students. I am a teacher who sees the invisible – and it is emotionally exhausting as I approach and attempt to befriend those fragile souls. Then move outwards to the social workers, their other teachers, their parents as I advocate for them. I use all my resources to help them succeed by setting up casual tutoring sessions; help them communicate and repair relationships with core subject teachers; help them by bringing them lunch, snacks and school supplies; buying them “Secret Santa-grams” and Valentine’s day treats. I really, truly love these struggling kids. They may look like young adults, but they are anything but that. They are fragile little kids with bodies flooded with hormones causing confusion and irrational actions.
This year, I am a bit more optimistic about school than I have been before – I ask you to suspend your disbelief and imagine that. This year is about finding time in the day – actually carving out time in the day. If give 100% to my students in school and then I can get the balance of the day for myself. Many people like to say, “I gave 110% of my attention (or whatever)”. But this is not possible. You can’t give more that 100%. 100% is all there is. That’s what it means – ALL. So don’t think that I am being selfish, or foolish to say I plan to give 100% to my job – when I am there. That is what I am going to do. The union has a name for it “Work To Rule”. Most teachers work much longer than the 7-1/2 hour duty day. We take student work home for grading. We write curriculum – or at least plan lesson plans on our “free time” – that means “not at school”. Most of us spend the summer increasing our knowledge, digesting what worked and what didn’t over the last school year and make plans to improve ourselves and our curriculum.
“Working to Rule” sounds so silly to me, having joined the teaching profession after being a salaried employee for 5 years at various printing companies. Being a salaried worker means “You do the work you have to do – time is not a factor.” So at the end of a month, when all the invoices were due, the customer service department was full of representatives (like me) clicking away at our computers and calculators, looking up paper costs and press time, figuring bulk discounts and finishing charges – late into the night. All happy and eating pizza that we all chipped in to buy. We stayed until we were done – then we were back at work the next morning with a smile on our face. I was so surprised by the teaching profession when I encountered “work to rule” union speak. What?! Teachers get paid for our 7-1/2 hour duty day x 180 student contact days + staff development and parent/teacher conferences. The teacher union says that you can get your work done during your duty day. No work home. All grading and lesson planning done during your 55 minute prep. Fifty-five minutes? Seriously? What a joke. You do the work you have to do – time is not a factor. I stand by this. So I plan to work hard during my duty day, knowing that I have other responsibilities outside of my school day. Of course I will continue to work after school if it needs to be done – especially around grading times! But, I must find a way to segment my life. Mrs. Wolfe, the anxiety-ridden teacher versus Susan Wolfe, the eager digital Archivist in training.
I sat down with my husband earlier this week to discuss what my “Susan in School” might look like. We found the following opportunities:
- I can swap staring at Judge Judy and Law and Order for MARA every day while I cook dinner and wait for my husband to get home – that gives me a solid 12 hours during the week days (subtracting 30-45 minutes of food prep a day).
- The evening can be spent on coursework (or my guilty pleasure World of Warcraft) for an additional 20 hours per week.
- I can gather an additional 16-24 hours on the weekend too.
So I have time, lots of time. The best thing about an online graduate school is that it gives me what I need to recharge – time alone – in my own thoughts. I say time alone even though, I know you are there. I see you online in my Blackboard IM. We can chat, but I am still alone, recharging my social batteries. The stress of having to read the “irrational” facial and body language of neurotypicals all day long leaves me exhausted. Online – is much simpler for me. Words are words are words. And emoticons are emoticons are emoticons. Plus, MARA will build me up by adding a scaffolding, method and theory to my organizational skills. Learning new things is thrilling to me. And a cohort is wonderful, especially for me, because people can be a bit confused by me at first – think I come on too strong – or too standoffish. I am neither. I am warm and loving. I care deeply and I work hard. I am fun and playful. I will be a good cohort member and a dependable team player.
So there is my balance. Balance. That is what I read about in Dr. Michael Stephen’s blog “Tame the Web” today. You should read it if you haven’t had the pleasure of doing so yet. I will have balance this year I think (I hope. I hope. I hope). The balance will come with the juggling of the anxiety of my duties as a teacher and the joy of my responsibilities as a student. That will be my juggling act. I will manage to keep the balls in the air as I chant softly, “Three years and out…three years and out…three years and out…”