Monday, September 6, 2010

Back to School

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” – Jaques Barzun

I am a high school English teacher. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.

Even during my five years as a lawyer, I dreamed about helping students creak open doors to unexplored worlds of language and stories. People thought I was crazy to quit a six-figure salary, but after a week in the classroom, I knew I’d be crazy to do anything else.

Before school ended last year, I struggled with whether or not to share my cancer diagnosis with my students. In the end, I decided it was important to be honest, and saw it as an incredible “teachable moment” that I couldn’t let slip by. My students were upset, but also strong and supportive. Tomorrow will mark the start of my sixth year teaching, and I’m still what doctors call “extremely fatigued” … and in the classroom buddy-boy, that ain’t good.

If you think teachers just waltz into a visually stimulating room with last year’s tests already runoff, and politely deliver lectures to a bunch of Leave-it-to-Beaver-land students who hang on every word - you’ve never taught before. The reality is that you have 135 uniquely demanding students – none of whom think your class matters more than their friend’s latest text or Facebook post.

During class you are constantly moving, surveying the room while simultaneously trying to engage students and teach content in a meaningful way. Between classes, you battle with copy machines, collaborate with colleagues, and talk with students about their hopes and fears, passions and hurts. After school, you attend faculty and department meetings, coach or moderate clubs, call parents, design lesson plans, write college recommendation letters, and correct thousands of pages of assignments and assessments. Your workday rarely ends before 11:30 pm, and you always work weekends.

In your “free time”, you read up on new pedagogical theories, and occasionally catch an irate radio talk show caller ranting about how easy teachers have it.

Let me clue you in Mr. Joe Lunchbox … you wouldn't last a week in my job. Also, teachers don’t get the summer “off”; we miraculously shove more than a year’s worth of work and anxiety into 10 months, and use the summer to recover (or work a second job). I’ve been out there in your so-called “real world” - the world of education is tougher.

But like any true love, it’s worth the work. I just hope that I’m physically up to the challenge, and that this cancer didn’t rob me of my greatest teaching tool – an unyielding exuberance for great books, my students, and the art of teaching.


  1. Darling, the cancer hasn't robbed you of that. Don't even entertain that nasty little thought! Literature only becomes richer with experience to contextualize it with.

  2. It is so funny that I am reading this because my mom and I were just having this conversation this week. Before I was diagnosed, I was an elementary ed teacher for 10 years. I was devistated that I was unable to go back to work. Since it was the end of the school year, the students just didn't see me in september. Of course, it was the rumor that I was fired. I decided to share my illness with a couple of the 8th grade students that became attached to me. That were heartbroken. Unable to find another teaching job, my mother asked, when I do start back teaching again will you tell your students? I didn't have answer. Good luck with the schol year. I truly miss it!