Don’t Forget to Breathe


Twice a year – and only twice a year – I question my career choice.  It’s always fleeting, and it’s always in the ten minutes before I make the walk from my office to my classroom.  No matter how long I’ve been doing this (going on 18 years, currently) and no matter how much time and effort I’ve put into syllabus-creation and lesson-planning, those last ten minutes before meeting a new class remind me of waiting in the wings to go onstage.  I figure I’ll either connect with the audience and dazzle them with my brilliant characterization, or I’ll forget my lines, knock over a lamp, and pee myself.  You can always find me ten minutes before the first class of a new semester begins, head in hands, mumbling, “Gaaaaahhhhh.  Why do I do this?”

I stumble to class with all the confidence of a death row inmate on his way to the chair, but ten minutes later, after I’ve started to dig into the work and I realize that my students aren’t going to strap me to a chair and poke me with olive forks, I think, “Oh, yeah.  This is why I do this.”  It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little frightening, it’s never dull, and it’s the single most rewarding career out there – but somehow I manage to forget all of that in my semiyearly anxiety.

It happens again and again, and now that I’m 36 hours out from the start of another new semester and another new group of preservice English teachers a semester away from student teaching, I’m gearing up for it yet again.  But that question – why do I do this? – was already on my mind.  Last night, a reader commented on my post with a great question: “If you weren’t a teacher, what other career would you choose?”

It’s a pertinent question, especially in a climate where teachers are continually asked to do more and more with less and less and still end up being vilified by the media and politicians and parents.  And I suppose if a teacher (beginning or veteran) thinks he or she would be happier doing something else, he or she should probably do that thing.  Because teaching is no place for reservations or reluctance.  To be a good teacher is to throw yourself completely into your job.  It doesn’t mean that you live and breathe and eat and sleep the classroom – in that direction lies burn-out – but it does mean that you have to be willing to work, and work hard, at your career.  It means you have to read and plan and grade and talk and write, sometimes simultaneously.    It means you have to have a willingness to sacrifice your time, to fall and pick yourself up again, to be discouraged a split second after being elated, to forego sleep and fun (especially in your first couple years), and to always be willing to adapt.

And, oh yeah – you have to love, especially your subject and your students.  Teaching is a leap of faith into the great unknown, and you have to love what you teach and whom you teach to make that leap, year after year.

It’s interesting for me to think about that question – “What would I do if I weren’t a teacher?” – because teaching came to me as a last resort, and the preceding two paragraphs weren’t even in my vocabulary as a new teacher.  When I started my undergraduate college career in the halcyon days of 1991 (a mere month before the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, and doesn’t that make me feel old), I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I don’t know why.  I probably liked Corbin Bernsen on L.A. Law.  After that phase reached its logical conclusion I thought I’d study creative writing, but I realized I didn’t have the dedication to do that, and then I thought I’d study acting, but I didn’t smoke enough for that.  Then I thought – and I wish I were kidding – “I like reading and writing.  Why not teach English?”  And so I did.

It wasn’t long into my first year, though, that I quickly learned that just loving reading and writing isn’t enough.  Not even close.  The reading and writing bit – especially in my first year – was the least of my concerns as I just figured out how to survive.  As I wrote a few days ago, I had a lot of instructional freedom, but having a knack for the content of English and being a good English teacher are two completely different things.  This is the mistake a lot of current education reformers make.  They think it’s just a matter of knowing your stuff.  But it’s not just that.  It’s knowing how to get 4th period to forget they’re hungry for 50 minutes and it’s knowing when to let the kid whose parents are divorcing turn in his homework a day late.  It’s knowing how to make a 60-year-old book about growing up African-American in the South relatable to a bunch of privileged white kids and it’s knowing how to help the three Latino boys who barely speak English make sense of the language.  It’s breaking up fights outside your door and not taking insults personally and strategically ignoring emails from administration and telling Hollie – again – to put her makeup away and realizing that no one really cares about the standard on the board and learning to treasure those little victories that most people would miss but teachers are conditioned to freeze in time like a wasp in amber.

You have to love all of it, and I had to learn my way into loving it.

That’s why I do it, and why I still can’t picture myself doing anything else.  I do it even now, when the landscape is changing and it seems more and more like what the public and politicians and administrators really want are interchangeable cogs, automatons who can enforce a death march through a textbook, rather than passionate, principled teachers who are experts at what they do and who have made a commitment to the betterment of society.  I have to believe that there’s still a place for those kind of teachers, and helping my students find their teaching voice is the commitment to which I rededicate myself every semester.

Teaching is a leap of faith, and I make it gladly every day.


Current listening:
Tindersticks st i
Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)

4 thoughts on “Don’t Forget to Breathe

  1. Thank you for this. The anxiety of my approaching first day back just started to creep in today, and it was so refreshing to read your thoughts. The job is ridiculously difficult for so many different reasons, but it can be so beautiful and rewarding when a sort of balance is found. It is not just about content; it is about intuition, charisma, compassion, communication, love – you name it. I am so grateful that you gave me such honest guidance when I was first coming into it all.

    • Thanks yourself, Cassie. Your group made it easy to work with, even though (and maybe you don’t know this) your cohort was my first experience working with student teachers. I’m glad I didn’t completely screw you up.

      I’m excited for you to be getting back into the classroom. You’re going to be great!

  2. I too experience this/these feelings of fear/anticipation. Seventeen years in haven’t changed much other than the fact I can say to myself “You know, you’ve been through this quite a few times and it’s usually good and you’re still here.” Doesn’t help as much as I would like it to but it helps some.
    Preparation is of course a key (maybe THE key), but willingness to adapt is also extremely important. Do you ever urge your preservice teachers to take any improv classes or anything along those lines? I swear our TP training helped prepare me as a teacher as much as anything else I did as an undergrad.

    • Brian, I’m sort of embarrassed to say the improv angle has never occurred to me, but of course you’re right. Wow. I’m glad I have one more day to tinker with my spring syllabus, because now I have all kinds of ideas about places I could tie some improv games to what we’re doing.

      Oh, and you’re spot-on with the observation that experience gives you the ability to say, “Look, dummy. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, so relax.” Great stuff.

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