Monday, August 28, 2023

Dear Teachers Headed Back

This will be my sixth fall of not going back to the classroom, and this time of year still brings a twinge to my heart.

I'm sure it's exacerbated by the fact that both the Board of Directors and the Chief Marital Officer (CMO) here at the Curmudgucation Institute will resume classes this week, and I will not.

In retirement, I have not yet adjusted to this time of year. As a teacher, it was always like the biggest case of stage fright ever. And there was always a sense of anticipation, of a whole world of possibilities just about to open up. Fresh off a summer of thinking and reading about the work, I would have a toolbox full of new ideas that I was just chomping at the bit to try out. The CMO, like most elementary teachers, has been in to retool and arrange her space, so that it is fresh and new and will smell like new classroom tomorrow. It's a cool smell. I envy that smell.

I know there are so many things that can get in the way of that new year scent of joy and anticipation and possibility.

Teachers were heroes in the national culture for about six weeks in 2020. But other than that, it has twenty years of politicians and privatizers figuring out that they could score an advantage by coming after public education, and the drumbeat has just gotten louder and worse, moving from "American public schools are failing" to "teachers are a bunch of groomers." And all of that contempt for public schools has mixed with the covid-created vacation from actually doing the school thing to create a stew that students have soaked in so that they are now carrying that contempt and contentiousness right into the classroom.

Add to that an increased awareness of shortcomings of the system. Add to that increased, unfunded expectations. And add to that whatever local issues you have, because while state and national policy debates may create problems that trickle down to your classroom, nothing is more problematic than working for an administrators who is some toxic trifle with layers of incompetence, malignance, and weaselly untrustworthiness.

I have not been out so long that I've forgotten the challenging parts. I left for a variety of reasons, some having nothing to do with the work itself, but the fatigue that comes from having to repeatedly make the least bad choice still lives large in some sharp-edged cells of memory. There are parts that I don't miss a bit.

But, still.

The sun is going to rise and reveal something new. That scent of promise and possibility. Fresh office supplies, and a room just waiting to be lit up. The chance to do the work, to fashion lessons out of your own knowledge and skill and bridge across a moment that you can't control but only plan for, where you find those students where they are and pass on to them something they can use, maybe right now or maybe years from now. The times when the classroom is firing on all cylinders. The times when students are lighting up, growing stronger and smarter right in front of you. The times collaborating and just jawing with colleagues who are at it, too. All the times when the work is getting done.

Helping students become their best selves, figuring out what it means to be fully human in the world. 

Lord, and the scale--the huge human picture of it matters and the sweeping ideas matter and the nuts and bolts and dirt under the fingernails matter. 

I miss it, every fall especially. And I am excited for you that you get to go back to it. Because for all the crap heaped up around it and thrown at it, there is no better job in the whole world. It is great and exciting and energizing work, one of a handful of jobs that let's you work right there at the core of what it means to connect the world and humanity and yes you can get distracted and tangled up in baloney and stifling strips of foolishness, but unlike people who spend their whole days wrapped up in that crap, all you have to do is remember to turn your head and adjust your focus because it's always right there, the heart and humanity and reality of starting out as a tiny human and coming into your full true self and entering into a relationship with your world--it's all right there. It's always right there. Human beings--particularly young human beings in the business of becoming--are miraculous, and you are right there.

So God bless you and good luck. May your year be filled with the best parts of the work, and may you find the chance to enjoy them. May your memory be a blessing to your students. May you pass on some of the best parts of human knowledge and skills, the miracles involved in memory and art and making sense out of strange scribblings on screens and paper. May the hard work stretch your sinew and bone and still feel good, because it is work worth doing. If you have to fight to do the work, may you find strength in knowing it's work worth fighting for.

New day, new year. I envy you. Have a good time.


  1. I retired in June. There are those who have contacted me this month about missing it: Opening Day, Open House, &c. &c. I don't miss it. This season of my life is over, the chapter is written, and the page has been turned. Not that I've lost interest in defending our public schools, but new things are on the way.

  2. I had a teacher friend who retired several years before I did. In talking about my impending retirement, he said to me that after one year you will look back and wonder how you ever did it. The works is as rewarding as it is relentlessly exhausting. He was right.