Driving to work today — the first day of school — I saw the school maintenance man and his son, a high school senior, wheeling their way to the campus. Ken and Matthew didn’t see me, but I was acutely aware of their car, having seen it day in and day out for years, usually traveling the same roads to the same destination. At the traffic light, their little brown Honda turned left; I went straight, heading miles away from the sweet school that has played such a role in my life as a teacher.
School is starting without me. I am a teacher no more. Today’s encounter was a poignant reminder that I am not returning to the classroom, that school is going on without me, that “my” students now belong to another teacher, that I am no longer an integral part of daily life at the Academy. But like our cars on the road, the feeling quickly passed, noticed only by me.
Let me be honest. I am glad I am not returning to the classroom.
This summer, summer break was summer break, not an extensive planning period for the upcoming school year. When I cleaned my classroom and left it for the last time, I didn’t cart home books so I could plan afresh all summer. I didn’t go through the usual cycle of relief, regret, and resolve, the theme of previous summers. For years, my summer would begin with relief that the year was completed. I could clean house, weed, blog, regroup to my heart’s content. Then I would reflect on the school year just completed and begin the regret phase. Instead of focusing on the successes, I would peer intently at the hopes that didn’t become reality. I would experience regret that I hadn’t accomplished all I hoped — instilling in my students a love of reading and writing and seeking truth, and, more important, a passion to protect reading and writing and the pursuit of truth because of what it means in our Christian lives. And then I would resolve — to do things differently, to find that magical secret or system or sequence that would make those high hopes reality.
There is something idealistic about preparing lesson plans in the absence of students. On paper, on my computer, on my course website, I planned a great curriculum woven with creativity and skillful classroom management — the best of all possible classrooms. And then the students would arrive. As Robert Burns said in his poem “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans of mice and men/Often go awry.”
I could teach the exact same material to three different periods, and someone sitting in all three classes would barely notice. You know the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”? Teaching is very much like that, too. I could start each class the same way, but one class would take off on an intellectual rampage, most having read the assigned work, gotten excited and deeply thought about some aspect of it. Another class would apply the reading in a deeply spiritual way; fewer students read or cared about reading, but the details that emerged were enough to spark an incredible conversation. Yet another class’s discussion would focus on still different elements of the reading. Some of my best laid lesson plans went awry; some of my weakest lessons became the best days in the classroom. Teaching was less about what I taught and more about what my students took from it. That is harder to plan.
After a particularly difficult day of parent-teacher conferences early in my teaching career, one of my fellow teachers told me, “You know, this would be a great job if it weren’t for the students and their parents.”
Though his statement was sometimes true, it rather defeated the purpose…
And so I taught for 15 years. It was an all-consuming adventure, arresting my waking thoughts and pervading my dreams. Teaching wasn’t a job; it was my life (in addition to raising five children … and a husband, keeping house, and sometimes going to school myself). I didn’t think I could ever do anything more significant than teaching (except write a book that would change the world, still my goal).
Yet, when I was done this past May, I knew I was done teaching. I had no idea what I would be doing — except looking for another job — but as Sipsey said of Ruth in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “a lady always knows when to leave.” (Thankfully, I was just leaving teaching, not life.) So I wrote my letter of resignation, helped hire and train my replacements, and gently, tearfully closed the door. It was an act of faith, for I both loved teaching and loved my colleagues, my students, and their parents. (Our school was special like that.) A few weeks into summer, I accepted a job offer and have been working, happily, ever since.
But several of my friends who are former teachers or school librarians warned me that when August rolls around, former teachers always have that sense that they are missing something.
It’s now August, and I am. I will miss teaching my homebase students their senior year; I have had them since ninth grade. I will miss seeing them rule the school as the reigning class of seniors, miss hearing of their plans for college, miss helping them reach their goals. I definitely will miss my dearly loved colleagues, among them:
- Diana, the Ethel to my Lucy or the Lucy to my Ethel, depending on the day. A fellow administrator for the first time last year, she kept my sarcasm sharp and my heart soft — and, too often, did “share a Coke with Sara.”
- Doug, the self-proclaimed “grandfather in chief” who not only was the tenderhearted head of school but also the master of it. Headmaster, in fact, a title well-deserved.
- Beryl, the sunshine of our front office, always serving with a smile. A true gem.
- Ken, of course, whose car sighting triggered this post. He is the maintenance man who approached every mess, every muddy footstep on his newly washed floor with a smile and the comment, “It’s job security” (and saw fit to buy me a sign to declare my classroom a “No Whining” zone).
- Stephanie, the athletic director who was always “All in!” with her ever-working sidekick, Michelle.
- Judy, who saw God’s hand in every moment and never failed to give Him glory.
- Dana, the only one I’ve ever known who could be proud of a nickname that included her weight.
- Erin, overflowing with song and the gift of encouragement.
- And so many more…
Certainly, I will miss all the fodder for my blog that teaching provided. (You might have noticed the links throughout this post, just a sampling of writing inspired by my teaching career…)
If I weren’t in a new job position with a clear sense that God has placed me here, that poignancy I felt when I saw Ken and Matthew’s car heading to school while I headed a different way would not be a fleeting feeling. But I know that God has led me to this moment and this place, and I truly am glad.