By the age of fifty, many of us have experienced passions. A romantic relationship, a cause, an adventure, travel, or maybe a career or a calling. I didn’t discover my dream career until I was in my mid-thirties. It seems fitting that, after majoring in English and supplying an immediate and horrified, “No,” when asked if I planned to teach, that I would end up doing exactly that and loving it.
My calling came when we were stationed in Alabama for a year and enrolled our two younger children in a small Montessori school. Our daughter was in kindergarten and our son was in the three-year-old room two mornings each week. I used those two mornings to volunteer in our older son’s school, tutoring a second grade student in danger of failing.
It was difficult to get to the public school on those two mornings because our three-year-old had separation anxiety and, while he loved his teacher, “Miss Mary,” and in fact planned to marry her one day, (this was prior to meeting the “girl of his dreams” when he was six…she was our server at a Red Lobster one evening) he despised anything to do with school. The principal and her assistant noticed that I spent a lot of time on the campus, albeit mostly trying to loosen my son’s velcro-like grip on my torso enough to hand him over to Miss Mary. They asked me to help out part-time since I was there anyway, and my son could stay in school on the days I substituted. This seemed win-win, because although I didn’t necessarily want to sub, I hoped being in school for more than two days per week might help my son become more comfortable there. I continued the tutoring on the mornings I’d committed to it but on the other days I made myself available to substitute.
To this day I don’t know if it was tutoring the below-level second grader and helping her pass the grade or if it was the hours I spent with the preschoolers and kindergarteners at Montessori, but by the time we got orders to to my husband’s next duty station, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. To make this long story shorter and get to the point, I got my teaching license, a teaching position, and in the next few years earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood and achieved National Board certification in the same area. I loved my position and my students, grading and conferencing, presenting to colleagues, mentoring beginning teachers through their student teaching, and earning additional endorsements. It was everything I wanted…until it was not enough. Not enough for those who make laws about education, not enough for our students, and sometimes no longer enough for me.
After six or so years in the classroom, I began to hear rumblings about budget cuts for education and possible layoffs throughout the district, the state, and the country as public schools became required to continue as they had been but with fewer resources. It is important to realize that none of the mandates in place at the time were reduced; only the human and capital resources needed to meet them were drastically cut. Our district committed to reducing staffing by attrition rather than laying personnel off. As educators or assistants left the system or retired, many would not be replaced, rather, their positions were simply eliminated.
My colleagues and I were grateful; no layoffs! Sure, we would be getting larger class sizes and fewer resources, but we are resourceful people, and no one goes into teaching with the expectation of lucrative compensation. Besides, if we didn’t step up, the students would be the ones to suffer the most. Plus, economies recover. Surely this is temporary! It’s for the children! We’re all in this together. And we were. For many years. Every now and then we were even given a raise of between one and two percent. This almost covered the difference in our rising required retirement contributions and increasing insurance premiums.
We attended and spoke of our concerns at School Board and City Council meetings, our superintendent continually lobbied the state to restore pre-recession levels of funding, we marched on our state’s capitol. Still, we return each fall to large class sizes, fewer materials, and outdated technology. I know I am not alone in trying to summon back the passion that once made my days so rewarding. In fact, each year I watch several dedicated and expert educators walk away, their once passionate commitment shattered by the daily realities of the inexplicable expectation that they can do more, for more, and better, with less. Less personal attention per student, fewer resources, less technology than most students have at home, less free time, and perhaps most importantly, less respect from the state and national departments of education.
I have no new answers for this. It is August. I have purchased the supplies I need for this year’s class, I am working on some new guided reading plans for new books I’ve bought over the summer, and I’ve tweaked a few routines to save time and streamline daily procedures. I’ve collected a few things for the classroom to enhance our school wide theme for the year. I am looking forward to meeting my new “kids” and their parents in three weeks. I am trying yoga, eating clean, reading, and spending time with those I love. I am telling myself that I will still do these things when my school year begins in three weeks. My life will be enhanced by the camaraderie of colleagues and my new “family” of 28 or so. If I stay positive and open, honest and encouraging, I am still living the dream. If the passion isn’t exactly as exciting as it was 16 years ago, well, maybe it can mature into a productive contentment. Maybe that is enough.
As we all, students, teachers, staff, parents, and administrators begin our new school year in the next few weeks, let’s try to openly encourage each other to be a blessing to those we serve and those who serve us. Let’s look at things from multiple viewpoints. With encouragement and effort, we might rediscover that passion or at the very least, enjoy what we’re here to do. I would love to hear from educators, students, and parents about how you keep your own fires burning.