Warning – This post wanders as I reflect on 35+ years of teaching and my upcoming retirement.
Over the years I’ve listened to many a great writer extol the virtues of writers’ notebooks. So I’ve tried them. They didn’t work…for me…yet. I’ve kept them. I’ve referred back to them. They didn’t inspire me to write…yet. Maybe I’m not a “real” writer after all. But still I write. I write when the spirit moves me.
In school I hated writing for several reasons. I was given prompts or topics that meant nothing to me, so I didn’t write. I had horrible handwriting, so I didn’t write. Then computers showed up and prompts ended and I began to write. About things that moved me at that moment. Here I find myself in a moment needing to write, or should I say, release from my soul the thoughts and feelings inside me.
A few months ago I was standing in my 5th grade literacy classroom and it hit me, I’m done. I no longer am enjoying my work. I knew this because I no longer loved jumping out of bed in the morning to go to “work”. For 35+ years I have thought of my work with children as fun, inspiring, creative, meaningful, unpredictable…. I’ve loved it. But something changed. It didn’t feel fun or inspiring or creative. It became incredibly predictable. I promised myself 30 years ago that when I felt this way I would stop.
I told a fellow coworker/supervisor. She seemed sad. I was surprised by that. I thought it was obvious I was done because my spark was gone and I thought for sure that showed. She said it hadn’t. I thought some more about it. The decision did not change and so I gave my written notice, shared with a few close friends and coworkers, and then posted on Facebook. Some understand. Some saw it coming. Some were surprised. Some, more than I wish, were envious.
Now I sit here on a icy, rainy Maine morning and realize I need to empty my soul yet again and so I write. I’m confused about where this will go and it frightens me. My husband’s health care depends on my ability to provide our health insurance. Am I letting him down? He says no. His eyes say no. But I know that in his heart resides the same fear I struggle with. But I move on because, “I know”.
So I reflect on my years of working with kids. My first experience as a young adult in college was working with severely autistic adolescents. I fell in love with those kids and all their quirky behaviors. Their raw emotions sparked something deep inside of me. I continued working with deeply troubled kids. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life. They also burnt me out very fast. When I had my first child, my husband and I both decided I would stay home with our children. It was what I wanted more than anything. That decision led to years of borderline poverty. While my husband worked two jobs I stayed home and ran a home daycare. We had one car, lived in a very cheap home, and I took care of other peoples’ kids. Yet we were an incredibly happy family.
Years later, with the invent of computer, I realized that I embraced something called Waldorf education. I had no idea that our poverty living supported an idea already out there. No matter what our financial situation was we served real food much of it food we grew. I chose not to get certified by the state of New Hampshire because they would not approve of the food I served. Tofu…no way! Cheese from a local farm…dream on. But they would approve of hot dogs and Kraft Mac and Cheese. In other words, foodlike crap filled with harmful ingredients. This unfortunately is still the rules behind much of the food we serve our kids in our schools and daycare centers. Parents loved the food I served and often dropped off items they knew I would enjoy preparing for their children. Our days included making bread, creating our meals together, outdoor play, and crafts. Waldorf education says no to plastic. Well that’s all that was available at the local Salvation Army so plastic toys we had. But we also found items from the outdoors to bring into our play. I thought that was just poverty living. I had no idea that “rich” folks actually bought that stuff. We had a seasonal table long before I ever heard of such a thing. We had that because we brought in and played with whatever was outside at the time. No paints? No problem, just make them out of plants from the outdoors. To this day I embrace Waldorf education (not the man who made it popular).
So why am I “done”? I’ll be honest and admit that I have struggled to stick to our prescribed curriculum. This year I found that I had abandoned all my usual arts/sciences/nature fun that has always been a central theme of my classroom. One recent day I was discussing with a coworker my inability to get my kids engaged. We, she, came up with a behavior plan that included earning a variety of things including “free time” choices. As we discussed this free time I became happy, something I hadn’t felt all year. She presented our class with art supplies. I felt happy. I pulled out our weaving kits, knitting, and needle felting. I felt happy. Yesterday these supplies were introduced to my kids. The excitement was obvious. We “played” for an hour with the supplies. I was happy. I felt a spark ignite deep inside. I was reminded of the power of feeling happy, excited, inspired, creative as an educator. Or at least on this educator. It, I realize, is vital.
I wonder if this woman, who has worked closely with me for 9 years, saw my emptiness and respectfully knew exactly how to address it. Are these “earned free time” activities designed as much for me as they are my kids? I don’t know but that is how it’s playing out. Something I do know is that this highlights the power for humans to create, use their hands, relax, and have fun if we are to learn while in school.
Many wonder how new teachers will make it. How they will navigate the incredible demands put upon them, the overwhelming responsibility of educating children who will grow up to someday carry on the work of adults. My advice to them is to bring whatever ignites their creativity into their classroom. If the teacher isn’t happy, the kids won’t be happy. And if the kids aren’t happy, they won’t learn. We know that. We know that the lifeline of education is the teacher and so more focus needs to be on the needs of creating an environment where the teacher feels happy, safe, embraced. The teacher needs permission to be creative.
I have been blessed. I know this. I watch as many young adults struggle to figure out what they want to do with their lives. I always knew. I also know that to be an effective teacher we need to be happy, feel supported, and have some power in the decisions on how we spend our days in our classrooms.
So here, as I reflect, I pass on advice on what has kept me happy in the classroom for so long: Be creative. Embrace nature. Grow plants with your kids. Cook with them. Move. Practice mindfulness. Dance. Sing. Tell jokes. Read. Write. And Laugh, a lot.
Peace, love, and rock on with your kids,