Don’t Lose Yourself Along the Way

I have seen him around the neighborhood lately, that signature flattop (now gray), those same horn-rimmed glasses he has worn long enough for Mad Men to make almost fashionable again. Not always clean-shaven. And just enough added weight to make me question if it was him. But this morning, when I walked into Peet's at 6:30 and saw him sitting there, alone, reading a novel, looking at bit like someone out of a Hopper painting, I was sure it was him: Thomas, the man with whom I went through my student teaching year when we were novices passing through the School of Education at San Francisco State in the late 1980s.

A quick, slightly awkward exchange revealed that he had left teaching some time ago and was now "in the legal profession," which he described as "a job." He went on to say, "a job is a job." The week we began our student teaching, Salmun Rushdie went into hiding. Every day for weeks we would discuss this, speculating on how long it would last, this fatwa, this exile.

Seeing Thomas brought all this back to mind this morning. And when I came back with my coffee, perhaps a minute having passed, he was gone, as if he had never been there. I have taught for twenty-one years, and I realize, as I think about it, that we have lost so many (statistics suggest 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years) along the way.

Riding into the storm of the new year, casting a glance over my shoulder at those in my past, and a look at Beth, the student teacher who is heading into the new year beside me, I am reminded how important but how demanding our work is and will always be. Walking home from Peet's, I remembered Thomas's passion for literature, for ideas, his interest in getting it right. He has, I hope, found his happiness elsewhere, putting to use those same skills that drew him to teaching, to words.

We had a teacher in our district years ago whom everyone admired. His teaching was brilliant, but unsustainable. One must have a life outside the classroom. You would hear people marvel at these things he did. And then, in about his fourth year, he came unraveled and, by year's end, broke down and left the profession.

It's easy to be the best teacher ever for the first five years; but this work is a marathon not a sprint. So be brilliant but balanced, diligent but not destructive, creative and REcreative (as in making time to recreate, to engage in recreation) this year so you will be a great teacher this year and for many years to come.

9 Responses to “Don’t Lose Yourself Along the Way”

  1. Thanks for this post, Jim. It’s just what I needed right now. I’m still a little fearful going into student teaching next month, but I’ll try and keep your great advice in mind when I start to panic.
    And good luck to your new student teacher Beth! How fortunate she is to have you as her cooperating teacher.

  2. Excellent point to make at the beginning of the school year. Balance is essential. I have observed that talented people are leaving or never beginning careers in public and private school because they believe the instructional methods and assessment criteria are archaic and ineffective.

  3. I was able to find about 9 folks from our group of 30 English Ed. students. Of those 9, 3 are still teaching. We graduated 12 years ago. It’s very sad. Your words are wise. I plan share this post with my colleagues. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the reminders, Jim. So many forces that would allow, or even encourage, the kind of unsustainable activity that leads to burnout. Burning the candle at both ends does lend a lovely light but then someone’s left trying to clean up melted candlewax.
    I find it difficult to judge the line between diligent and destructive. I’ve tried observing colleagues, but given that many are more experienced than me and some are engaged in unsustainable efforts, that seems an untrustworthy measure.
    How does one make good judgements about how much is enough? How does one keep balance from becoming just one more thing to feel guilty about not achieving?

  5. Jim,
    Your words of wisdom are indeed wise! I am going to print this out and keep it with me as I teach this year; a reminder that I need to make time outside my classroom (and the work I take home). The line between diligence and destruction is thin and I fear I have been walking it very thinly at times.

  6. Perfect reminder for the beginning of the year. We will all have good and bad days, teach great lessons and fall flat on our faces. Snuggle with the family and then call the kids by the wrong names 😉 Trying to juggle everything and be perfect all the time is just asking for failure.
    Maybe we could remember that it probably goes for the students as well?

  7. Perfection, just when I needed it.

  8. Thanks Jim…
    Sadly, I find myslef yearing to be the guy at the coffee shop. I am 4 days into the new year and already want to be out the door. What has happened? Is it too late to recreate myself in this profession?

  9. Thanks Jim…
    Sadly, I find myself yearing to be the guy in the coffee shop. I am only 4 days into the year and already I want to be out the door. Is it too late to recreate myself in this profession?

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