During the 2018-2019 school year, I began to collect photographs from my perspective as a teacher during my last year before retiring, trying to capture this unique world while I was still deeply, daily, in it.
I took at least one, and sometimes several, photographs each day, focusing on what I saw as I went about my life as a seventh-grade teacher of language arts – mostly in but also out of the classroom, in the halls, the workroom, the office, and that elusive teacher’s room that I seldom actually used. I tried not to repeat images – but truthfully, there was no shortage of them.
I did this for several reasons. The primary one was to create a permanent record of the world I had inhabited for 22 years, knowing how sharply etched it was in every fiber of my being during my time there – but also knowing how easily it would fade upon leaving. (It evens happens, to a far lesser extent, during those first few weeks of summer, of course.) A secondary reason, though, was to somehow find a way to connect us – educators all – trying to navigate a world that changes by the year, month, day, hour, and sometimes minute.
If we’re lucky, we may have found colleagues that become friends, colleagues who understand us intimately, with whom we have developed a shorthand, friends who accept some groaning and moaning but who also celebrate our achievements with us, however incremental they sometimes seem. And then, in the way that teaching goes, they – or us – are suddenly moved to another grade, or another building, or go out on maternity leave, or retire, and we are left somewhat bereft. If we are less lucky, we haven’t found that person, or people, who can really understand us. And if our spouses aren’t teachers, they never really get it, do they? Why can’t lesson plans just be used again and again? Why can’t we just do that great stuff that worked last year? Why do we have to grade or plan yet again on that perfect fall or spring day?
You might wonder: By taking these photographs and collecting this record, was I actually trying to hang on? Did I not really want to leave this world? Nope. I was ready. I AM ready.
And, yes, I know that some of you – many of you? – might be envious of my empty hands, especially during this back-to-school period: no classroom I must put together again for myself, no lesson plans I need to write, no new curriculum to pick apart and piece back together, so that it might work in the classrooms where actual students live.
I have to be honest: I’ve got little thrills daily when I realize that the crickets’ click doesn’t mean a call to action; when back to school commercials don’t fill me with anxiety; when I don’t have my regular back to school nightmare of running through endless corridors looking for my classroom, which I absolutely cannot find; when I know September’s blue skies will be there for the taking.
But at the same time, I believe that once you’re in the world of education, you never fully leave it. And that there are children in this world who are thriving in some way, who are slightly more than they would have been, because of me. And you.
Which brings me back to this blog. Through it, I am looking to connect with all of you, still deep in the trenches (or even, like me, already out). I’m hoping that this might help us join together around one of the fundamental problems with teaching today: the lack of respect from those who haven’t been on the front lines yet believe they understand the war – government officials, administrators, parents, and regular citizens among them. The low pay. The shredding of our benefits. The lack of personal time. The blame put on us, who are only trying to grow some good people – who also, maybe, have actually learned a thing or two along the way.
My plan is to post one photograph – or a short series of related photographs – every day for 365 days, with a brief caption and a question for readers to think about. The photographs are not always – or mostly – award-winning; sometimes they are just a picture of an e-mail or essay on my screen. Most days, I took at least one photograph of a particular moment I wanted to capture; some days, I took several photographs at different points of the day. While I do have pictures of students in some of them, I avoided faces; though the students knew what I was doing, I didn’t want to ask for student releases.
I was originally planning on calling this blog “180,” as in the 180 days of teaching that are required by the State of New Jersey (and, more or less, in most other states across the country as well). For this reason, I didn’t focus on weekends and holidays, though of course I worked through most of them. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that to be honest, I had to focus on each of the 365 days in the year, because there’s no way around it. You’re either planning lessons, or creating materials, or grading endless student work – or you’re not, and feeling guilty about it. If you’re an educator, I know you get it.
The ironic part about this career that has, in fact, defined me more than anything else I did in my working life is that I did not plan or expect to be a teacher. In fact, because my mother – a school secretary in the New York City school system – desperately wanted me to go into teaching, I did everything but. I was a writer and editor for 20-plus years, working in book publishing and healthcare philanthropy, and, ultimately, becoming the public information officer for my school district not long after moving to my town. That was my back door to teaching, as I was asked by a good friend of mine, the curriculum supervisor for language arts, to teach a short class for an annual creative writing forum; while I had only taught years before as a teaching assistant in grad school, I was hooked. I ended up in teaching through the alternate route program, having already taken the Praxis and gotten my the necessary certificate to get me in the door.
It’s important for me to add that, of course, this is my life, my world, my perspective. I wouldn’t presume to think for anyone else. In return, I’m hoping that you answer back with your own photographs and/or your own observations. In other words, I’m hoping for conversation. Certainly, you may never want to comment, or you may comment often. And, of course, please feel free to send this blog on to others for whom you believe it might be helpful.
A note on blogging. There are many teaching-oriented blogs out there. This one is not aimed at selling perfect products or lesson plans, nor is it meant to encourage daily positivity or mean-spiritedness. There are some days that are supremely wonderful and some that are all-around terrible, and some in which terrible and wonderful follow each other very closely. And there are others – maybe the majority of them – that are just us mucking around in the dirt, or holding on by our fingernails.
Speaking of holding on: I’ll end with these words from one of my favorite songs about childhood, and growing up, and everything in between.
“And the seasons, they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down/We’re captive on the carousel of time/We can’t return[,] we can only look/Behind from where we came/And go round and round and round/In the circle game.”
* Joni Mitchell – Circle Game Lyrics | MetroLyrics