Today is the 3rd of my 12 days of winter break. This afternoon I will finish grading/correcting 170+ student papers, lay out my plans for the 1st week back, then be free of school responsibilities for the final 9 days. Meanwhile I will be writing one book review a day starting yesterday, for a total of 7. I am reading the last of the books I will review now, the new one by Thomas Franks, Pity the Billionaire - it's nice - and saves money - when the publisher asks you if you want to review a book :-). That one will be posted here, while several of those on education will be posted elsewhere.
It is a Saturday morning, a time when it is normal for me to step back and reflect on the world and my role in it. It is, of course, also Christmas eve day, a time when many are going more than slightly crazy as the attempt to finish up their preparations. That includes my beloved spouse, who after early evening Church services will head North to be with her family, while this year I remain behind, somewhat in solitude except for the five cats.
Tomorrow will probably be a day of serious meditation, but the process begins now. If you are curious about the workings of my mind, or any perceptions or observations I might decide to share, feel free to continue beneath the squiggle. If not, thanks for taking a glance at my bloviations, and be sure in the midst of your preparations to keep some time for yourself.
And now, onward to the reflections.
There are two main themes that somehow merge when i step back and take time to reflect. One is how I perceive the world around me, the concerns I have on so many levels - political, economic, environmental, educational, social, etc. Some of my reading, such as recently rereading words of Howard Zinn, very much fuel that kind of reflection. The other is knowing I will have some decisions to make about my future, and that might well mean my leaving classroom teaching, and almost certainly means I will leave my current classroom even should I teach someplace else. In early October I decided that I needed to seriously explore possibilities outside of my current classroom, even as I had for a long time thought I would continue to teach at my current school at least until I was 70. four more school years after this.
Part of it is personal economics, to be sure. As of January 1 I am officially drawing Social Security, although my first check will not arrive until late February 21. OF course I could continue my current teaching and just view it as a substantial raise. But knowing I could also as of the end of June be drawing a decent pension, and should I retire this year also get a one-time buyout of around 20K, leads me to seriously reflect upon different alternatives.
Simultaneously, I have found that there are a number of options besides being classroom based that MIGHT be open to me. I have a long-shot application pending for this doctoral program at Harvard which is free plus prov ides a living stipend that pretty much covers the additional money I would need beyond Social Security and pension. It is very much a long shot: I am 17 years older than anyone they have taken in the first two years of the program, and they will interview 50 some odd people for 25 positions; just making it to the interviews is aoubt a 1 in ten chance, although I have some very strong recommendations. There are opportunities in government (which could be short-term depending upon the results of next November), with non-Profits, etc. I could work part-time and use the remainder of my time to write - again people urge me to write one or more books.
In exploring options, I have to consider what matters to me - in what I do, in how I interact with others, with how I view my sense of responsibility to the larger world in which I live. While I will ultimately be responsible for whatever choice I make among those that may be possible for me, I very much value the insight of others, which is why I have spent time in conversations with people I trust.
There is one set of conversations upon which I have not as yet fully embarked. That is with my students, current and former. I have devoted so much of my time and energy to them, and I have gotten so much from them, I believe that they have things to tell me as well. I have had some email exchanges with former students. I have told my four AP classes that this could be my last year, and in at least one students have asked what they can do to persuade me to stay. I felt awkward at hearing that, because they are not in any way responsible for my considering leaving. I felt honored at hearing it as well, that they cared so much even though they might never take another course with me. It reminds me that I am a part of that community, in which I first arrived in the Fall of 1998. It also brings back one of my warmest memories. I left for one year to teach in Arlington VA, where I live. When I returned the following year, there had been no announcement I was coming back. During the week teachers were setting up their classrooms, some students were around, helping with the process. At one point I walked outside to the Temporary to which I had been assigned to find 5 young ladies standing there, waiting for me. Four had been my students two years earlier, one I had never met before. All were there to welcome me back, determined to make my transition back as smooth and pleasant as possible. I might note in passing that one, L. A., wrote a powerful letter of support for my Agnes Meyer Award. She worked as an accountant for several years after graduating from the honors program at U of Maryland College Park, and is now in her 2nd year at Harvard Law. She is one example of why being a teacher is so rewarding, something that makes me hesitant to leave the classroom.
So why would I consider leaving, when I can continue with a substantial increase in income, when I am still effective, when my students want me to stay, when my school and school system administration very much would like me to stay?
For a long time I have felt that the greatest contribution I could make was through the students I taught, and then by using the experience of being classroom-based to try to have some impact upon larger policy, through writing and lobbying and involvement in politics. As I get older I am discovering two things: 1, even though I have far more energy than most people my age, I do not have as much as even two years ago, which makes it harder to do as many things; 2, there are things happening outside my classroom on which I think - and others tell me - I could have an important influence, but I cannot fully take that on while I maintain my commitment to my 170+ students.
Some opportunities would mean that I would no longer be able to write as much as I do now. Those may be less likely for just that reason. It is not merely that I enjoy the exchanges that flow from what i write, but also how many people whose judgment I trust who have told me that they would hate to lose my voice. Were I on payroll for a political campaign or in a government agency in a policy position, my words would no longer be taken as just those of teacherken, but would be interpreted as representing my employer. That is something I consider as I explore opportunities.
Further, some of the impact I have when I write, especially about education, carries the weight that it does because I am still classroom-based. I am quite aware that within perhaps as little as two years away from the classroom, I would no longer have that additional weight, I would be too removed from the reality of the classroom.
Life consists of a never ending series of choices, of making decisions. As a classroom teacher I sometimes make over 100 decision in the course of a 45 minute period - upon what student do I call? Do I interrupt when a student is off on a response or a remark? Do I respond to a question or seek a response from another student or perhaps reflect back to the first student in the form of a question so that s/he can self-correct? Among all those small decisions I know I will not always make the optimum choice, I do the best I can, and then try to adjust as I see the results.
Deciding when to speak out on an issue is a somewhat similar process. Will my speaking out benefit others than myself? Will my words actually improve the discussion, or perhaps roil waters unnecessarily? Might I by speaking out on this issue lose the ability to be heard on others, or perhaps cost myself an employment opportunity (although the latter rarely influences my thinking).
I have just been through this experience. A few days ago, the President of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, co-authored an op ed in USA Today with Wendy Kopp, founder and head of Teach for America. Many of you read my reaction Thursday when I posted What if you feel betrayed by your union's leadership?. Because I was very critical of Van Roekel, I felt it incumbent upon me to tell him directly, so I sent the link to him, as well as to another top leader of NEA.
Apparently i was not the only NEA supporter who was upset by the editorial: yesterday a large number of us received an email from someone in the NEA hierarchy try to tell us that we misunderstood. I responded back with a Reply All why they still didn't get it, and as a result have had a number of conversations with some of the others who felt anger at the op ed. Two key takeaways: first, at least for now when I write on educational issues there are those in important positions dealing with education (and this includes beyond the unions some key non-profits) who pay attention to what I say, and second, when I get involved in issues like this it can be very time consuming. Between phone calls and emails I spent four hours on the issue yesterday, time I had planned to spend finishing correcting my student papers. Thus this incident reminded me how difficult it is to do the policy stuff and still be a teacher, even when I am not spending 8-10 hours day in my school building.
There is more. There is the condition of our society. The recent diaries in which I have wrestled with the challenges posed by (re)reading Howard Zinn remind me that I cannot do all I feel I should my concentrating on education and teaching - there is too much else. One reason I am not considered a leading educational blogger is because I write on so many other topics, because as a citizen and a human being I feel impelled to do so (and if you are curious about what i wrote, you can glance at my recent diaries, two of which have Zinn's name in the title, and one which is titled simply Words to consider). It is rare nowadays that what I post here is a blockbuster in terms of traffic, but I know that what I write is read, even if not recommended or commented upon, and sometimes my words have impact that I do not directly see - they motivate others to write or speak or act. Sometimes I know, sometimes I don't. So I wrestle with my responsibility to continue to give voice as a means of prodding others. . . .
I regularly have political candidates and office holders reach out to me. They may want my voice in support of an issue: that happened with a Congressman who was pushing several pieces of educational legislation. They may want advice on policy, particularly on education. They may seek my help in broadening their visibility, particularly here - and if I decide I like what they stand for I will help, as I have done recently with Sue Thorn, candidate for WV-01. I do these things in part because I can, because it is another way of making a difference in the world in which I live, and thus on behalf of others.
But at heart I am a teacher. It's funny that it took me almost 5 decades to fully grasp that. Throughout my earlier years I was often involved in teaching/coaching, either formally with students in piano and cello, or informally such as when I would direct a choir or mentor junior people in data processing departments even before I became first a supervisor and then a manager. Much of the consulting work I did, both in data processing and in my capacity as a leader within the Orthodox Church of America at local, diocesan and national levels, inevitably involved teaching. For me teaching is a combination of things, all of which ultimately have the goal of empowering others. To empower them I might first have to challenge them, to get them to step back and consider things previously not part of their thinking, including their own capabilities. It involves coaching, helping them learn how to learn . . .
One person I greatly respect is the author Parker Palmer, who through his books has for a number of years been a guide to me. I was fortunate to meet him a bit more than a year ago, and was surprised to find that he read what I wrote here at Daily Kos. He has been someone to whom I have turned in my exploration of where to go with my life, in part because he has been through similarly experiences in his own life. I understand that part of the process could be to stay where I am but with a renewed focus.
Parker urged me to complete the application for Harvard, not because he thinks it is necessarily right for me - he is silent on that, at least for now - but because he rightly pointed out that if I did not at least try I would probably always wonder if I should have tried. He told me that the process of applying would require me to reflect in a way that might eventually clarify for me whether it was the right path. In that conversation I reminded him of something he wrote about his own search. He had turned to an older Quaker woman who was considered a very wise guide of others. He laid out his heart to her, hoping for some direction. As Quakers, we have an expression - "way opening" - when we see a clear path in a particular direction. She told him she had never had way opened. Parker wrote that he felt his heart drop - if this wise and experienced person had never had way open, what hope was there for him? She then told him that she had often had "way closed" which served the same purpose. Parker understood, and I understand as well: I have explored the possibility of Harvard. If I do not get in, I will not wonder what i could have done differently to gain admission. That way will be closed. That will enable me to focus elsewhere.
But what if I should gain admittance. Someone I have known for more than five decades who is himself a major figure in educational circles has pointed out that I would in many ways be an odd fish at Harvard, that I might find myself lonely, especially as i would be living apart from my wife, seeing her perhaps every other weekend at best. He strongly urged me to spend some time up there to get a sense of whether it fit. That makes sense, and remind me what i tell our junior parents, to whom each Spring I do a presentation on applying to selective colleges and universities. I tell them and their children that before committing to a college to visit during the week while it is in session, and to wander around bit - that is, the students - without their parents. They need to trust their instincts to see if they feel comfortable, if they seem to fit.
So it is with much of what I explore, in actions and through writing. I listen to what others have to tell me. I see if it "fits" me. I look to see if I am encountering "way opening" or "way closing" or if in fact I perceive no clear direction. I step back and try to consider what implications might flow from a particular choice.
As in the decisions I make as a teacher, i realize that I will make mistakes. As a teacher I encourage my students to take risks, then to step back and see what they have learned. My classroom has to be a safe place to take intellectual risks, or they will not learn as they can. If I take that principle to a larger stage, is not part of what we should be doing as a society is creating an environment where people can feel more free to take risks and learn from mistakes, so that as individuals and as a society we become capable of change, without which there is no improvement?
And that leads to perhaps the only lesson I can draw right now from this reflection. It is a question for me, or rather, a series of questions?
Does what I do encourage exploration, the taking of risks?
Is what I propose to do something that at least potentially empower people to grow, including myself among those people?
Does that which I propose to do "fit" me? If not, why not?
It is Saturday morning. As is usual, I am "thinking" (or if you prefer, "writing") aloud. I embark on this kind of writing for my own benefit, to help me clarify my own thinking. I share it for two reasons
1. first and foremost, that I might receive feedback from others than helps me - in that I am perhaps somewhat selfish
2. for the possibility that what I write may be of use to someone else in sorting through their own thinking.